Despite their similar sizes, Tarik Cohen isn’t Tyreek Hill.
It might be unfair to compare the Bears’ second-year running back to the Chiefs’ third-year star, who had 1,183 receiving yards last season as Matt Nagy’s do-everything speed demon. After the Bears’ fourth game, though, it’s clear that Nagy can deploy Cohen in ways he couldn’t have dreamed with Hill.
“The one difference: They’re different players — Tyreek is exclusively in Kansas City as a wide receiver,” Nagy said. “There were times, and there are times, when coach [Andy] Reid would put him in the backfield and run the ball.
“The one difference with Cohen is that he can do both. He is a threat to run the ball between the tackles when he’s in the backfield. But if you move him out and put him in the slot at wide receiver, he’s shown he can do that, as well. That’s an advantage for us as play-callers, for us as coaches.”
With Cohen in the backfield, defenses must make a choice. Keep their base defense in, and Cohen can outrun most linebackers on a pass play. Move to a nickel defense, and Cohen can run over the extra defensive back.
On Sunday, for the first time since Nagy’s arrival, Cohen outpaced Hill. Cohen ran 13 times for 53 yards, caught seven passes for a team-high 121 yards and celebrated a nine-yard touchdown reception with a standing backflip. Hill managed nine catches for 54 yards.
On Monday, Nagy and running backs coach Charles London categorized the Bears’ running-back usage as fluid. Cohen or Jordan Howard could receive more carries, they said, depending on the opponent. It seemed a subtle change in messaging, considering that Nagy spent the offseason touting Howard as a three-down back.
Howard has struggled this year, and Cohen was coming off a breakout game.
“I knew about [Cohen] just from coming out of college, but I didn’t know everything about him,” Nagy said. “First of all, I didn’t know how great of a route runner he was. I didn’t know how well he was going to be able to handle this playbook — he’s exceptional at being able to just digest everything we give him. And he has such natural hands.”
Cohen is averaging 12.1 yards per catch, second only to tight end Trey Burton’s 16. His 5.1 yards per rush dwarf Howard’s 3.2.
“It felt good to keep getting the ball,” Cohen said. “To see the trust factor from the coaches to see I can be a playmaker.”
Against the Buccaneers, he showed the patience that eluded him during his rookie season. On second-and-one in the first quarter, quarterback Mitch Trubisky handed off to Cohen, who was standing to his left in the shotgun. As Cohen reached the line of scrimmage, he stutter-stepped, waiting for tight end Dion Sims to pull around and block a linebacker, before bouncing the ball outside for a 19-yard gain.
“It was a designed inside run, but one thing you know when Tarik has the ball in his hands, the ball can go anywhere,” London said. “And the line and the receivers, they understand that as well, that it may be a little different when he’s in there because the ball may head anywhere.
“So they have to hold their block an extra second longer or make sure that they’re blocking their guy on the backside who may not typically be a factor — but with Tarik they could be a factor.”
Whether Cohen could hold up as the Bears’ main ballcarrier is another question. London has no problem with Cohen initiating contact — even down the sideline when he has the option to step out of bounds — because of his muscular 181-pound build.
Nagy isn’t worried about the workload, either. He has managed one before, with a certain receiver from Kansas City.
“We went through that with Tyreek Hill,” he said, “and I have a pretty good balance on how to handle that.”