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Bears RB Tarik Cohen out to show the world he can ‘run people over’

Cohen promised he’d be a different player this season, and his performance in the opener was a good signal that he’ll make good on that. His resurgence would be tremendous for the Bears’ offense.

Tarik Cohen ran seven times for 41 yards in the opener against the Lions and didn’t have a negative carry.
Tarik Cohen ran seven times for 41 yards in the opener against the Lions and didn’t have a negative carry.
Jose Juarez/AP

There’s Tarik Cohen’s actual size, then there’s the size he thinks he is.

He talks all the time about being short — both Bears kickers have a couple inches on him — but seems to imagine himself as something other than the 5-6 jokester who has been heard yelling in the locker room because someone put all the shower towels on the top shelf where he can’t reach them.

But in Cohen’s imagination, he’s enormous. He envisions himself as a classic, barreling running back who rolls through the line like a boulder.

“Just run people over — that’s really my type of game,” Cohen said. “I’m a bruising back. Y’all think of me as a shifty back, but in my heart of hearts, I’m a power back. I just have to show the world that.”

He’ll never fully convince anyone he’s another Derrick Henry, the Titans’ bulky, dominant Pro Bowl player, but Cohen isn’t totally delusional. After vowing to course correct after miserably underperforming last season, he opened this one with purpose.

Cohen ran differently in the opener against the Lions, more forcefully. He didn’t waste much time moving laterally, nor did he leave yards on the field by darting out of bounds. It was clear he intended to run vertically, and the result was 41 yards on seven carries.

That’s a modest but important contribution at 5.9 yards per carry. And it’s a meaningful step toward restoring himself as a vital part of the Bears’ offense.

It was a good mix in the backfield with David Montgomery adding 64 yards on 13 rushes and Cordarrelle Patterson running four times for 19. If coach Matt Nagy can keep all three backs involved, he has a much better chance of keeping the Bears’ ground game unpredictable.

He’ll try to keep that going Sunday against the Giants, who were fourth in the NFL at 3.9 yards allowed per carry last season. The Steelers ripped them for 141 yards at 4.7 per carry to win 26-16 on Monday.

Cohen and Nagy looked like a perfect match in 2018, their first season together: a multitalented player and a creative play-caller with limitless ideas of what to do with him.

Cohen led the team with 1,169 yards from scrimmage, doing about 60% of that damage as a receiver, and tied for the lead in touchdowns at eight. Getting the ball in his hands was worth 6.9 yards per play, and he tipped 100 yards of total offense four times.

Then he went from essential to expendable.

And that was expensive. It’s the reason he’s playing on the final year of his rookie contract instead of enjoying a splashy new extension.

Maybe that pressure was what he needed, though, to shake him out of complacency. He admitted he wasn’t in ideal shape last season and didn’t have the bursts of speed that made him so dynamic the year before.

He plummeted to 4.7 yards per touch and three touchdowns. After averaging 73.1 yards of offense in 2018, Cohen’s best games last season were 85, 74 and 64 yards.

It didn’t take long for Nagy to start squeezing him out of game plans. The seven carries Cohen got Sunday were more than he had in all but two games last season, and he was in for just 16 snaps in Weeks 9 and 10.

It was one of many problems that derailed Nagy’s offense last season, but what choice did he have? Cohen was no longer dangerous enough to be one of his best options.

“There were some things we saw last year that we thought he could do better,” Nagy said.

One of those was changing his approach as a runner, which was evident Sunday. Cohen didn’t have a single carry for negative yardage and all but one attempt went for at least three yards. Last season, he had zero or negative yardage on 23.4% of his rushes.

So that’s progress. But the Bears are still looking for more.

Cohen was a minimal factor in the passing game Sunday with two catches for six yards on his only targets.

That was not all his fault, though, in a game where Mitch Trubisky’s throwing accuracy was highly suspect. Late in the third quarter, Trubisky threw a screen pass to Cohen that could’ve been a big play, but the ball was so high and late that Cohen had to jump just to get one hand on it.

Better quarterback play is just as essential to Cohen’s success as his own renewed effort. He’s not a player like Allen Robinson or Jimmy Graham who has the potential to create openings for himself regardless of what’s going on around him. He needs Nagy to be an opportunistic play-caller and Trubisky to be on target.

If the Bears can get those pieces in place, there’s no doubt Cohen can have a resurgent season and reclaim his place in the team’s long-term plans.