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The Film Room: I <3 Tarik Cohen

Future Hall of Famer Tarik Cohen is Matt Weston’s newest favorite player.

Atlanta Falcons v Chicago Bears
He even makes Desmond Trufant look big.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Last Sunday was a grotesque and disgusting Houston Texans game. There were a lot of sacks, ten in fact, Tom Savage was a frosty t.v. dinner in the pocket, the interior run game was still middling, and DeShaun Watson scrambled around with a palpitating heart. Afterwards everyone was upset. We waited since January to watch this team play football again, and when they finally did calamity came in. It was boring and disgusting. We all wondered why we looked forward to the calendar flipping to this day.

When the Houston game finished I carried on and moved forward through time. I went for a walk. I bought groceries. I passed through life until the condensed games came to life. Then I went back and chewed through week one thirty-five minutes at a time. After crawling from the darkest, dankest, deepest, and most fetid of caves, I was embraced out among the embers of the NFL landscape crinkling and crackling, turning all that horror into pure enjoyment.

As a tall person who has never been fast and never has been able to jump, I love watching people who can do both these things. I have no idea how they do it and what that must feel like. How do they make people miss? What is a juke? Is it really possible to start moving that quickly? Giraffes and swamp creatures that can deadlift the moon are banal to me. If I see one in the wild I think to myself, what a freak, only to stand accidently next to them and be of similar height, realizing yet again, that this is what I look like to the rest of the world. Size and strength are boring. What I love is speed, surreal cuts, muscles springing to 20 mph in a hour instantly like a Cedar Point coaster. Things alien to the only reality I’ll ever know.

And oh, my, Tarik Cohen is the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen. At 5’6” 180 pounds, running a 4.44 40 yard dash in the combine, the Chicago Bears fourth round rookie running back is my favorite player of all time, and should be everyone’s. In his first professional game he weaved and bounced and teleported throughout the field making the world’s best athletes look like they had been clockstopped as he scurried around snakes full with frozen blood in early morning light. He ran for 66 yards on 5 rushes. Caught 8 passes for 47 yards. A completely silly, a completely absurd 7.92 yards a touch, a number that quarterbacks strive for.

His first career touch came on 2nd 19 with 6:38 left in the first quarter. He was lined up right to Mike Glennon in the shotgun. At the ball’s first movement he left the backfield and ran a drag through the short part of the field. He fit freely under the linebackers’ short zones. He caught the pass, ran past the first linebacker, and into the arms of another. De’Vondre Campbell leaped over the top of him, wrapped him up, and smushed him into the grass. It meant nothing to Cohen. He picked up his entrails and stuffed them back inside immediately, and then searched for the ref to toss the ball to while Campbell clapped and screamed.

After two more touches, one a three yard loss on a toss play, the other a five yard out route as a slot receiver, Cohen broke free. On 2nd and 10 Chicago ran a toss play to the right. The offensive line blocked like it was an outside zone play. Each took a parallel step to the right followed by a 45 degree step to cover the defender in their gap to create natural easy flowing double teams. The only wrinkle in the play design was the outside linebacker going unblocked. Chiacgo’s full back was let to take him on. All designed to get Cohen outside and into space.

The blocking was great here. The double between the right tackle and right guard made me kiss my fingers. Josh Sitton gets really deep on his first step to set up his overtaking of the block, and Bobby Massie doesn’t just scream up the linebacker. He helps on the first level the entire way and naturally takes on the linebacker. Tom Compton gets to the second level and unhinges his jaw when he gets there. Fullback Michael Burton turns the outside linebacker away from the play after the defender runs upfield.

From there it’s all Cohen. He cuts to the inside Burton’s block, bounces outside Sitton’s, cuts inside of Massie’s, and then starts running as fast as he can.

When you have a great running back you don’t really need to block anyone for him to pick up yards. With illusion or brawn they can break tackles to churn out consistent successful runs. When you combine great blocking with great skill, this is what happens. Runs come in late night chunks. When Cohen is on the field the only thing Chicago has to do is block the first level for him to do the rest. Just enough for him to break through the first seam and get outside.

This principle applies in the passing game too. One of the many great things about Cohen, and the future of this Bears’ offense, is all the different ways he can be used. He can play running back or wide receiver. When he’s split out wide he has the hands to run every route. This simple comeback route has the ball thrown to the sideline rather than to the inside. He’s able to adjust his hands, and dip under the tackle to pick up a few more.

Because of his hands and speed there are an infinite number of ways he can get the ball in the quick passing game.

On this screen the Bears are in trips right and have 0-0-5 personnel. Cohen is lined up as a wide receive slot right. An inside screen is unexpected in a formation like this. If a screen is thrown in this situation it’s usually a quick bubble screen where the outside receiver blocks down and the inside receiver loops around, or a jailbreak screen to the outside. Instead Cohen runs a drag across the center of the field with two offensive linemen releasing right before he catches the pass.

If covered, the offensive lineman blocks whoever is in front of him. If uncovered he goes up to the second level. Most screen blocks are blocked fluidly where assignments are determined in an order of consequence. The left guard Compton has the first linebacker, the right guard Sitton has the second linebacker.

The issue in the blocking scheme is the result of the defense. Deion Jones (#45) drops back in coverage. The left inside receiver is supposed to pull safety Keanu Neal out of the box by running up the seam. A reasonable thought against a team that plays cover three as much as Atlanta does. Instead, Neal sits and Jones drops backs. By doing this Neal becomes the second player to block instead of Jones. Sitton realizes this too late. Cohen catches the pass and gets clubbed by Jones for a two yard completion.

Regardless of the result, this play is still interesting. It’s a type of play rarely run in this offensive formation, and another example of the ways the Bears are going to try and get Cohen the ball.

His next touch ended the previous plays of stifling defense. One of the negatives on Cohen coming out of college was that he improvised too much, tried to hit home runs instead of take the singles available, and that his style wouldn’t translate when he played against the Atlanta Falcons instead of Alcorn State. His college play is littered with runs where he has a force field around him and breaks four tackles without being touched around the line of scrimmage with jukes and speed alone. He could turn dropped snaps into 55 yard gains.

Cohen can still make these plays in the NFL. On 2nd and 7 Chicago has two tight ends to the left and their wide receivers balanced. This a sweep to the left with pin and pull concepts. A pin and and pull is when one blocker blocks down on a defensive lineman while the other pulls around the down block to the second level. Here Chicago has their slot receiver and a tight end block down so their inside tight end and left tackle can pull around. The rest of the line is blocking like it’s an outside zone play.

It’s a great play design to mess with the defense’s reads and get Cohen in space in such a heavy formation. The problem is Atlanta has one of the fastest defenses in the NFL. Thomas Dimitroff sits in a camper van and scours the collegiate ranks for absurd athletes for Dan Quinn to coach up. By going into a formation like this they aren’t coaxing Atlanta into bringing in larger defenders. They are running that Seattlite 4-3 under, with the weakside linemen lined up as a 4i and a 5. The defense isn’t at any disadvantage here.

The blocking isn’t awful. Atlanta is just fast and comes downhill immediately. There just isn’t any room and all that space to the open side of the field is quickly filled. The only free defender is Duke Riley who instantly fills in the other ‘B’ gap. Sitton can’t even breathe on him. This is a play design that will be great against Green Bay, but not Atlanta.

Cohen turns the NFL into the CIAA. He stops, plants on his left foot, and runs horizontally the other way. This takes Riley out of the play. The open side of the field switches. The problem is Brooks Reed is right in front of him. Reed goes unblocked and does what he’s supposed to do, shuffle down the line of scrimmage to prevent cutbacks. Reed is a middling athlete. Cohen is the holy spirit. He runs around Reed’s lion leaping pounce, picks up a block from Kevin White (#11), and Mike Glennon gets in the way. Here comes the pursuit angles. He outruns one that slows him down just enough for Desmond Trufant to eventually bring him down 46 yards down the field.

Along the way Cohen received the nickname the human joystick. Cohen is not a joystick. He isn’t some oblong shape attached to a medieval 1980s cabinet. Nobody controls him. He’s the one who dictates the field when the ball is in his hands. Cohen is a laser pointer. He’s a red dot zipping across the field in constantly changing directions while defensive hounds bump into walls or mash their teeth into the carpet, driven mad in the pursuit of missing something that was there, that immediately isn’t.

At 5’6 180 lbs he frustrates defenders and turns defenders into burning masses of rage filled energy. When they tackle him they are going to try and destroy him. Like Campbell earlier, they are going to WWE spear him and taunt him afterwards, try to separate his head from his neck when he dips under to break tackles, and ensure he goes to the ground whenever he gets the ball. The sidelines aren’t a safe haven. All this anger and inadequacy is going to boil into mean spirited 15 yard penalties.

As of right now, there is still some truth regarding Cohen’s refusal to take singles. On the rare chances he gets to run interior plays he needs to take what’s available. Rather than shift his feet to find a path outside, he needs to run north and south or cutback against the grain to get outside the tackle.

This is an inside zone run out of the now NFL standard 1-1-3 personnel. Chicago’s offensive line turns a spread out defensive front and creates seams for Cohen to run through.

The play is intended to be run to the left side through the ‘B’ gap. The Bears’ offensive line does a great job at moving the first level. Holes are created quickly. Cohen stutters though. There’s a seam for him to wriggle through. He shifts and looks for a way to get outside instead.

He follows left tackle Charles Leno’s block. By cutting around it allows the defensive end to get free unless Leno wants to pick up a holding penalty. Of course he is able to still make it work and turn a gain of zero by his own poor decision into three. He cuts inside, spins around another tackle, and is taken to the sideline. Making something simple complicated. Jones then takes Cohen and flips him over his shoulder, turning anger into action.

Bringing up a negative from Cohen’s first career game is like talking shit about a pretty sunrise or saying she isn’t that hot because there is a crescent of space between her teeth. The Bears are going to run toss plays, sweeps, outside zone, quick passes, and screens to get him the ball. To stay somewhat unpredictable they are going to have to run inside zone plays like this with him. Cohen will need to take seven easy yards instead of manufacturing three through a Houdini act. Hitting singles is integral to his development. Yet, because of frustration he’s able to gift the Bears 15 at the conclusion of the play, and shows again, that he can take NFL hits and bounce up without giving the defense any type of Schadenfreude.

His first career touchdown came on 1st and 10 and 19 yards out from the endzone. Cohen is lined up in the backfield to the right of Glennon. He’s running a swing route out to the flat against Atlanta’s cover three defense. The play design is perfect here. The comeback by the outside receiver brings the attention of the strong side inside linebacker. The seam route pulls the alley way defender and the cornerback upfield. By the time Trufant realizes the back is free, the ball is in the air, and Cohen is standing on the ten yard line.

By the time Cohen catches the pass he is on the seven yard line. Trufant shuffles over and is in front of him and cowering. He’s back on his heels. He’s ready for whichever way he can cut or spin around him. He’s frozen. Cohen turns all of that magical elusiveness into straight forward power and goes right through Trufant to score in an unexpected way.

Cohen is another must watch skill player in the NFL. This red laser running circles around defenses is the only reason you need to watch the Bears. His size, how they use him, the insane acts of elusiveness and speed, has turned the Bears from a solid team into something spectacular. It’s been one week and I can’t wait for the next fifteen so I can see Cohen sift through defenses in ways unimaginable to me.