The last time Tarik Cohen caught a pass in a game before Sunday, he was playing out of the national spotlight for North Carolina A&T. That created some problems for an Atlanta Falcons defense trying to scrounge up any sort of film on the rookie running back.
“He didn’t have any catches in the preseason, so we didn’t have a great sense for it,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. So Atlanta had to go back to Cohen's college tape to see what kind of a pass-catcher he could be.
Not only did Cohen not have a catch in his three preseason games, he wasn’t even targeted. The Bears were hiding him and developing plays for him behind the scenes in Bourbonnais and Lake Forest. Those plays were unleashed on Sunday, and will give defensive coordinators plenty to think about as the Bears move forward in 2017.
“The secret’s out on what we have in him,” quarterback Mike Glennon said. “We knew how good he was going to be with us and he showed that today. His very first game in the NFL, and he did it all. He ran the ball, caught the ball and scored a touchdown. He’s a playmaker and we’re lucky to have him. He’s going to continue to be a big part of our offense.”
Cohen caught eight passes for 47 yards with a touchdown, and rushed five times for 66 yards. He was targeted a team-high 12 times on a day when no other player was targeted more than six times (tight end Zach Miller). The Bears’ receiving corps was targeted a total of 14 times.
“I knew it was coming,” Cohen said. “It was in the gameplan and I felt like I would have a good matchup for the whole game. That was really why we did that.”
There was more to Cohen’s game than showed up in the box score, though. He was used early and often, and took a number of physical shots from Falcons defenders who seemed to relish the opportunity to batter the 5-foot-6, 181 pound running back. He kept popping back up, though — “I’m used to taking hits,” Cohen said — and then flashed his own physicality on a 19-yard touchdown reception on which he lowered his shoulder into Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant to get in the end zone.
“He took shot after shot and he’s the first one up, (saying) ‘Let’s go. Do it again,’” Miller said. “That’s a man. I don’t give a damn about his stature. That dude is a real-life NFL football player.”
Gushed wide receiver Josh Bellamy: “He’s not scared of nothing. He’s not scared, that’s the thing we love about him. He’s tough. He’s small, but he’s tough, he’s got the heart of a lion. And he’s going to run the ball. He doesn’t care what size you are, he’s coming.”
Cohen was at his best, too, when the Bears needed a response to a Falcons touchdown. His 46-yard run — that one where he cut back across the field, "Chicken Salad" style, against an over-pursuing defense — set up Jordan Howard’s game-tying touchdown late in the first half. And to get Howard in the end zone, Cohen took a snap out of a Wildcat formation and handed the ball off.
After Austin Hooper’s 88-yard fourth quarter touchdown muted the crowd at Soldier Field, it was Cohen who got the Bears back within three points with his first career touchdown.
“He helped carry our football team through the whole game,” Miller said.
With so many questions about the Bears’ passing offense — which only mounted with the report Kevin White may be lost for the season — Cohen was a bright spot. Whether he should’ve been on the field for more than one play when the Bears were at the Falcons’ goal line late in the game is a fair question, given what he showed throughout the day Sunday.
The Bears haven’t had a player as exciting to watch as Cohen since, arguably, Devin Hester. How he’s used the rest of the season will be fascinating to follow, but after Week 1, Cohen left Soldier Field feeling positive about what he accomplished.
“Just the fact I was able to make plays — (I’m) not really caught up on the stats, how many rushing yards I had, how many receiving yards,” Cohen said of what he liked of his performance. “Just the fact I was able to be accountable when my number was called on.”