The Bears had their best offensive game of the season Monday night when they beat the Redskins 31-15, but something was still off.
Versatile running back Tarik Cohen is the team’s most dangerous playmaker, yet he’s still under 100 yards for the season.
With coach Matt Nagy’s penchant for spreading the ball around and the Bears loaded at the skill positions, there will be flukes where top players get left out. But three games is a decent sample size, and Cohen isn’t sufficiently involved.
“Yeah, probably not,” Nagy acknowledged. “The neat thing, though, is you know we’re in four-minute mode there at the end of the game, and he’s like our biggest fan down there cheering [rookie running back David] Montgomery on. . . . He’s a very selfless player, so whatever we ask him to do, he’ll do.”
Coming off a season in which he led the Bears with 1,169 yards from scrimmage and scored eight touchdowns, Cohen so far has eight carries for 16 yards to go with 12 catches for 82 yards.
Against the Redskins, he ran four times for minus-2 yards and caught two passes for 26 yards. His best play of the night was in the third quarter, when he caught the ball three yards behind the line of scrimmage and raced through a group of defenders for a 24-yard gain.
It’s a little counterintuitive that Cohen played a supporting role rather than a starring one on a night when the Bears took a similar approach with their passing game. No one on the roster has more potential than Cohen to turn short, safe throws into monster plays.
But as Montgomery grows into the role of the Bears’ primary back, he’s squeezing some people out. Montgomery went from playing on 38 percent of the snaps in the opener to 45 percent in Week 2 at Denver to 67 percent Monday night. The corresponding move was with veteran Mike Davis, who declined from 40 snaps to 15 to one.
Cohen’s use has remained fairly steady — roughly half of the Bears’ offensive snaps, same as last year — aside from a spike in the opener when Nagy used him to help offset tight end Trey Burton’s absence. Last year, Cohen got a handoff or was targeted on a pass 11.9 times per game; that figure has slipped to nine times per game this season.
It was reasonable to expect that Cohen’s production would rise rather than fall. While it’s impossible to maximize all the Bears’ top weapons every week, Cohen is too good to get lost in the shuffle.
“We have a lot of different guys,” Nagy said. “So he could come out one game and have eight catches for 100 yards and another game not. So that’s the balance.”
Maybe the answer is to play the best guys, regardless of position, the way basketball teams have lately. Nagy has used Cohen equally as a pass catcher and runner in his two seasons coaching him, and could consider leaning on his receiving ability to include him more. That might make even more sense this week against the Vikings if wide receiver Taylor Gabriel remains out with a concussion.
But Nagy wasn’t enamored with the experiment of playing Cohen in the slot while Burton was out and wants to keep him in the backfield.
“Tarik, he’s a running back — that’s how we look at him,” Nagy said. “But now we can use him to our advantage by doing some different things with him as a running back. When you have a guy that can run between the tackles, yet can take advantage of mismatches in the pass game, that’s a benefit.”
Cohen can go up the gut if needed, but that’s not ideal for someone who’s 5-6, 191 pounds. His abilities are maximized in space, where his speed and elusiveness make him a nightmare for defenses. The Bears need more of that, regardless of whose touches it cuts into.