Few rookies created more buzz in the first few weeks of the NFL season than diminutive running back Tarik Cohen for the Chicago Bears.
Cohen, the 119th selection in the 2017 NFL Draft, made the jump from North Carolina A&T look easy in the first three weeks, going for more than 100 yards from scrimmage twice and averaging nearly 15 touches per game in the process.
But in the two weeks since, Cohen’s touches have withered to 11 and 7, respectively. After such an explosive beginning, why would the Bears move away from letting him continue to touch the football at a high rate? After all, this team has limited weapons to make explosive plays happen, so isn’t it counterintuitive to work away from the pocket dynamo? Not necessarily.
There are three logical explanations as to why Cohen’s role has been scaled back.
Cohen is the polar opposite of the jackhammer Chicago implements as its primary runner, Jordan Howard. The second-year back out of UAB and Indiana measures in at 221 pounds, a whopping load for an in-between-the-tackles runner. Cohen, on the other hand, is 40 pounds lighter at 181.
And while Howard got off to a slow start this season (9 carries for 7 yards in a loss to Tampa Bay in Week 2 was the low point), he’s come on strong in the past three weeks. Those stronger performances (and higher carry volume) comes in unison with Cohen’s decreasing role.
That’s likely for the best, as Cohen’s 14.7 touch pace over the first three weeks would come to more than 230 touches if extrapolated over a full season. That’s a lot of wear and tear for a rookie back who checks in at barely 180 pounds.
While Cohen is no stranger to heavy workloads in college — he logged more than 950 touches from scrimmage in four years — there’s a difference between taking tackles at North Carolina A&T and trying to grind out yards in the NFL.
Chicago’s more selective role for Cohen is the best way that his exciting skill set stays on the field for the long run this season.
The return of Bennie Cunningham
Cunningham was carted off in Week 1 with an ankle sprain, which opened the door for more snaps and touches for Cohen. But Cunningham was not laid up for long, as he returned to practice as a full participants just 11 days later on September 21.
In the three games that Cunningham has played since, he’s steadily found a nice niche in some third-down situations and a between-the-tackles change of pace for Howard.
Those snaps would have otherwise gone to Cohen, taking a good chunk out of what available workload was there for Cohen’s taking.
While Cunningham hasn’t hoarded touches (11 in three games), it’s enough to accentuate the shifting focus in how the Bears have chosen to share the football.
Learning how to use his skills optimally
Yes, Cohen was terrific in creating big plays early on. Cohen logged runs of 46 and 36 in the first three weeks as well as catches for 19 and 14. There was also a long touchdown run in overtime against Pittsburgh that was called back on a penalty.
But look back to Cohen’s performance on Monday night against the Minnesota Vikings. Cohen carried 6 times for 13 yards, caught one pass for -6 yards and returned four punts for an average of 6 yards per return.
More telling than some paltry numbers? Cohen spent a lot of time running east/west instead of north/south. The end result was allowing a fast-to-flow Vikings defense to close quickly. Cohen left notable yards on the field against the Vikings, a frustrating byproduct of his running style and strengths. This line is one Cohen is going to have to learn to walk as a player: Learning how and when to take what’s available and understanding when it’s appropriate to attempt to create a big play.
This paradox was my primary concern with Cohen entering the 2017 NFL Draft, as I wrote in his formal NFL Draft report:
“North Carolina A&T Running Back Tarik Cohen is a lightning-in-a-bottle style runner; however there is going to be a legitimate issue with his play style translating to the NFL level. Cohen is an electric and wild runner but is too much of a freelance runner; failing to show the necessary read ability and consistency in identifying NFL caliber running lanes.
Instead, Cohen gives ground, will spin away from contact and risk massive losses to chunk gains. His speed in straight line situations and short area agility are strong; they offer glimpses at a promising skill set that simply does not have a direct connection to the NFL’s style of play.”
Cohen has shown his athletic abilities will make plays happen, but doing so consistently and without the negative plays is going to be a big hurdle to the Bears scheming him deliberate touches.