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Will Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen both be able to succeed in Bears' backfield?

Tarik Cohen has been a relevation to start the season, while Jordan Howard had a monster bounce-back performance in Week 3. Will both tailbacks be able to keep their fantasy owners happy going forward?

When Jordan Howard got four carries in a row on the Bears’ second possession, culminating in a three-yard touchdown run, you could forgive Tarik Cohen owners for getting more than a little nervous. After all, Howard spent the entire week on the injury report because of a sprained shoulder. This was supposed to be Cohen’s game to really shine, following his two weeks as the NFL’s newest sensation.

If those fantasy owners were more than a bit nervous after that possession, they were likely in an all-out panic after Chicago’s next touchdown drive. The team marched 75 yards on nine plays on a drive that began with 5:37 remaining in the first half, ostensibly a time when your pass-catching back would be on the field. Cohen got just one touch on the drive, though it did result in a 26-yard run. Howard starred on the possession, carrying the ball four times for 36 yards, with his shortest run of the drive going for six yards.

No one could blame Howard owners for not exactly feeling sorry for their Cohen counterparts. Two weeks ago, it was Cohen who usurped Howard, totaling 113 yards and a touchdown on eight catches and five carries, while Howard managed just 66 yards on 16 touches, though he did salvage his performance with a touchdown. In Week 2—while Howard was busy slogging his way to seven yards on nine carries and injuring his shoulder—Cohen caught eight more passes for 55 yards, making the best of what was an ugly situation for the entire Bears offense. Where Cohen owners saw their possible RB1 slipping from view this past Sunday, Howard owners saw the universe correcting itself. Neither constituency was wrong, but both may have been surprised at the ultimate outcome.

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By the time the Bears had wrapped up their surprising 23-17 overtime win against the Steelers, Howard had reasserted his dominance in the Chicago backfield. He ran for the game-winning touchdown in the extra period, finishing with 138 rushing yards, five catches and 26 receiving yards, to go along with the two scores. Cohen, meanwhile, overcame his slow start to finish with another useful performance, running for 78 yards on 12 carries, and catching four passes for 24 yards, marking the second time in three career games he topped 100 yards from scrimmage. With the Monday night game still to go, they ranked as the RB2 and RB13 in PPR formats in Week 3. In the process, they forced the fantasy community to recalibrate its expectations for Chicago’s backfield as a whole.

Beginning with the 2011 season, there has been at least one pair of teammates that both finished as top-24 running backs in PPR leagues. Those pairings are listed below:

2011: Darren Sproles (RB5) and Pierre Thomas (RB21), Saints

2012: Stevan Ridley (RB15) and Danny Woodhead (RB24), Patriots; Mikel Leshoure (RB18) and Joique Bell (RB23), Lions

2013: Reggie Bush (RB7) and Joique Bell (RB14), Lions; Danny Woodhead (RB12) and Ryan Mathews (RB17), Chargers; Pierre Thomas (RB16) and Darren Sproles (RB23), Saints

2014: Jeremy Hill (RB10) and Giovani Bernard (RB16), Bengals

2015: Doug Martin (RB4) and Charles Sims (RB16), Buccaneers; Giovani Bernard (RB17) and Jeremy Hill (RB20), Bengals

2016: Devonta Freeman (RB6) and Tevin Coleman (RB20), Falcons; Bilal Powell (RB17) and Matt Forte (RB21), Jets

A few things stand out about that list. First, given the division of labor in the majority of NFL backfields, as well as the league-wide shift in favor of passing offenses, we should expect at least one team to give us two RB2s—or one RB1 and one RB2—every season. Second, most of those pairings feature one back clearly in command of the rushing role on his team, and another who was just as obviously the better pass-catcher. In most of these cases, the player who was the superior receiver wasn’t a lost cause as a runner, either. Those conditions are in place in Chicago.

Let’s start with Howard. He was one of the most polarizing early-round players during draft season, largely because of the perceived failings of the Bears offense. What those who sold him failed to realize is that no back runs for 1,313 yards by accident in an offense as listless as Chicago’s was a season ago. Howard is the real deal, and after a tepid start to the season, he reminded everyone of that fact while he was running over and past the Steelers in Week 3. Howard has produced 13 missed tackles on his 45 carries, according to Pro Football Focus. That places him second in the league in creating missed tackles on rushing attempts, trailing only Kareem Hunt. At 225 pounds, he has the stature to hold up to a huge workload with his bruising running style, and he will remain in command of the rushing portion of the Bears’ backfield.

It took all of one game for Cohen to prove himself as a more reliable, explosive receiver than Howard. As great as Howard was as a rookie, he was not all that adept at catching the ball out of the backfield. He led all running backs with eight drops, which translated to a shocking drop rate of 21.6%. Part of the reason the Bears were so enamored with Cohen in the draft was his ability as a receiver. Through three games, he has caught 20 of his 25 targets for 126 yards and a touchdown, and he has not dropped one pass.

At the same time, Cohen has been electric as a traditional running back taking handoffs, tosses and pitches from Mike Glennon. His 36-yard run in overtime set up Howard’s game-winning touchdown, and it looked as though Cohen had actually taken the ball 73 yards to the house, though he was ruled to have stepped out of bounds at the Pittsburgh 37-yard line. He has picked up 157 yards on the ground on 24 carries, with four rushes of 15 yards or more. He’s one of seven backs in the league with four or more such runs this season. Howard is too, along with Hunt, Dalvin Cook, Carlos Hyde, C.J. Anderson and Alex Collins. Other than Collins, the others all have 45 carries or more, or at least 21 more than Cohen.

The Bears are desperate for playmakers, and they won their first game of the season by giving Howard and Cohen 44 touches. Take Mike Glennon’s three scrambles out of the equation, and Howard and Cohen accounted for 88% of the Bears’ carries and receptions in the win over the Steelers. That may not be a formula for consistent victories, but it is one that will have Howard and Cohen’s fantasy owners happy all season. There will be moments of frustration for both groups, but there’s more than enough room for fantasy success for both backs alongside one another. But the Bears have to be excited about having this season’s most dangerous tailback pairing.