To try to explain the math behind how the Bears split carries between running backs Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen against the Buccaneers, offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich turned to science. The sweet science.
“Instead of body blow, body blow, body blow, knockout, we took some haymakers early and landed them,” Helfrich said -Thursday. “And kind of came with the body blows later.”
That context — the Bears led the Buccaneers 38-3 at halftime — takes some of the sting off of Howard’s usage, which totaled only 11 carries for 25 yards. So should the fact that the Bucs game marked the first time that Howard received fewer touches in a game than his second-year running mate.
The early lead turned the game on its head, Helfrich said. Howard had five carries for 12 yards through three quarters. In the fourth — when everyone inside Soldier Field knew the Bears would hand the ball off to bleed the clock — Howard gained 13 yards on six carries.
More concerning than one game is the ho-hum stretch Howard has endured over the last three, in which he has averaged 2.47 yards per carry. Still, Howard — who insisted Monday he was not upset by his usage — remains the Bears’ designated body man. Helfrich –described him as a “hammer.” But that’s not all the team will ask him to do.
“As you’ve seen, we think he can do everything,” Helfrich said. “He’s run out of the backfield, we’ve run pass game from the backfield, free release pass game, specifically designed to get him the ball. Screen game, inside/outside, there’s not anything on our list where we’re going, ‘Hey, No. 24’s in, let’s scratch off those seven plays.’ ”
The inverse is true, too, Helfrich said — the Bears don’t cross off plays when Cohen is on the field. Helfrich challenged the notion that Howard and Cohen are either/or propositions. Both can excel without it being at the expense of the other. Last year’s stats back him up: Howard’s four best games, in terms of rushing yards, were against the same teams as three of -Cohen’s top four rushing games.
“[Howard] does a lot of things very well,” he said. “The difference people see in Tarik, Jordan and maybe Benny [Cunningham], everyone just goes to the extremes of, ‘Well, this guy is better at A, B or C; the other guy must stink.’ That isn’t the case.
“They certainly have their strengths. And one guy is maybe better on the edge than the other guy, but the other guy is better inside than the other guy. Most times your running backs are not identical, and your game-planning week-to-week is going to change.”
Pairing them together “opens up a little bit of everything,” Helfrich said. He said having two running backs with whom a team is confident is “maybe not unique but rare.” Cohen’s ability to split out wide with Howard in the backfield creates matchup problems.
“Just their versatility and their selflessness, which has to continue,” he said. “It’s going to be, sometimes guys are going to go in with whatever the ratio is, 65/35 one week and 60/40 one week, 50/50 one week. But running as hard without the ball as with the ball. And being a great teammate.”