How Bears Use Tarik Cohen Can Make All the Difference

Gene Chamberlain

Tarik Cohen has been active on social media since the 2019 season ended.

This certainly is nothing new.

One common criticism some vocal fans have had for him has been moving laterally instead of forward.

He felt in a mood for making amends with these fans over the weekend.

"Imma stop running sideways this year. Issa wrap," Cohen said via Twitter @TarikCohen.

Cohen later added: "Different mind set this year ! It's UP!"

Whether Cohen was just joking with them wasn't clear. His unique sense of humor often takes over in such situations. 

It's not as simple as running sideways, anyway. Where he starts the play out can be as critical as where he ends up going with the ball.

Several factors combined to drop Cohen's effectiveness, or at least this is the explanation given by Cohen and the coaching staff.

Cohen pointed to a lack of conditioning and his own inability to realize what he had to do to be in shape without a veteran back around to provide guidance, like Benny Cunningham had done for him.

It's possible this had some effect, and it resulted from a tough, mediocre season. 

NFL players frequently comment how beat up they feel at the end of a rough season while there's rarely much said negatively when they're winning. All along the punishment is essentially the same. 

Cohen remains the same player he was, but dropping 1.3 yards per rush and 4.4 yards per reception can't entirely be traced to conditioning or some missing veteran leaders. After all, he became the first NFL player with more than 75 catches to make 475 yards or less, so something was amiss.

Much has to do with scheme. The way the Bears deployed Cohen last year was largely ineffective. 

Throwing it to him more downfield and running him out of the backfield makes more sense than the opposite, like they tried to do in 2019.

Last year receptions by Cohen traveled 27 yards downfield through the air total, according to the NFL's official stat partner Sportradar. However, in 2018 passes to Cohen traveled 205 yards downfield before being caught.

Cohen was lined up more as a wide receiver last year than as a running back, yet they tried using him in the passing game the way a running back is traditionally used. It obviously didn't work out. 

In the past, it had been flipped. He'd been targeted less times than he took handoffs in his first two seasons. Then last year he was targeted 104 times with 79 catches and ran it 64 times.

The very first game gave an indication of what was to come. The Bears put him in the slot 40 times, at wide receiver seven times and in the backfield four times.

None of this makes sense.

It would have been easy to pin the decline in rushes on the presence of Cordarrelle Patterson, but the Bears didn't necessarily use their new gadget player in a way to take away a huge number of Cohen's runs.

During the previous year, they had Taquan Mizzell and Matt Nagy insisted on giving him the ball as a running back nine times. This was only eight times less than Patterson got it in 2019. So there were other players involved in that mix both years taking runs away from Cohen and the difference was marginal.

"Tarik is excited about this upcoming year," running backs coach Charles London said. "We're putting last year behind us and we're just going to move forward. He knows that I've got his back and we;re going to do whatever we think’s best for Tarik as far as in the offense and whatever that may entail."

Both Cohen and coach Matt Nagy sounded this moving ahead and forgetting the past approach but no one actually should do this. They need to remember the way Cohen was used in the offense did not work last year and try to get back to the way he was used when he produced.

The Bears changed from offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich to Bill Lazor and already Cohen has indicated he likes what he's seeing with plans for his use.

"(I'm) already seeing the things he has planned for us," Cohen said. "It's going to be hard to tell who's getting the ball and when or how they're getting the ball, too."

He compared it to how they used him in 2018. This can't be bad.

A projection on Cohen's season under these circumstances would likely land him somewhere below his best year in 2018 and well above last year's depths. 

Put it at fewer catches, more runs and greater production overall: 360 rushing yards, 610 receiving yards, five all-purpose touchdowns.

Usage means everything when it comes to Cohen, and with a contract year involved his stake in this is high. 

"I don't think that's going to be an issue with him at all," London said. "He's also very motivated to get out there and return to his 2018 form." 

Deploying him more like in 2018, then, couldn't hurt.

Tarik Cohen at a Glance

North Carolina A&T RB

Height: 5-foot-6

Weight: 191

The Key Numbers:  Cohen dropped nine passes last year, tying him for fourth in the league. The previous season he dropped one.

2020 Projection: 78 runs, 360 yards; 68 receptions, 610 yards; 3 receiving TDs, 2 rushing. 

Twitter: BearDigest@BearsOnMaven

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