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Inside Slant: Young runners carry load in loss

Posted Nov 19, 2017

The Bears rushing attack was at its best Sunday, with three key young players all showing how good they can be on the ground.

The Bears offense this season is dictated by what it can do running the ball. With a rookie quarterback under center and a receiving corps that has been severely impacted by the injury bug, the passing attack at this point serves as a compliment to what is done on the ground. And with second-year back Jordan Howard teaming with rookies Tarik Cohen and Mitchell Trubisky, there is an awful lot happening on the ground.

In Sunday's 27-24 loss to the Lions at Soldier Field, the Chicago rushing attack did everything it could to keep the Bears in it to the end. The trio of runners combined for 222 rushing yards on 30 attempts, marking only the third time in team history–and first game since 1966–that the Bears gained 7.4 or more yards per rush on 30 or more carries. Howard led the way with 125 yards on 15 carries, Trubisky had 53 yards on six attempts and Cohen gained 44 yards on nine rushes. And for a cherry on top, all three had important, highlight-worthy runs.

"Those guys are special," right guard Kyle Long said of the team's three-headed rushing attack. "We got a lot of young, young talent, but very talented. The youth movement, you see it on the defensive side of the ball, but also the offensive side of the ball. (Cohen) and (Howard) are pretty special."

The Bears made it a strong priority to get Cohen involved in the offense early on. After having only eight touches combined in the past three games, the rookie was a focal point in the first quarter, with a pair of runs and also some passes thrown in his direction. Cohen's presence on the field alarms defenses, which must account for his speed. That takes bodies out of the middle of the field, opening up room for Howard to operate between the tackles. Chicago's first touchdown was set up by a 50-yard run by Howard, off a draw where the back followed Long's block to a large patch of empty grass.

Tarik Cohen
Bears running back Tarik Cohen runs for the end zone in the fourth quarter against the Lions.

In the second quarter, the running back tandem and young quarterback teamed up to put the Bears in the end zone. First there was an option-keeper, where the defense pursued Cohen, so Trubisky kept the ball and ran for 10 yards. On the next play, in the same formation, Cohen took the handoff and ran for 10 more. Following an incomplete pass, the Bears went with the read-option a third time, this time giving the ball to Howard for 12-yard touchdown run.

"They're good players," Trubisky said of his teammates. "If you get good players the ball, they're going to make plays for us. We're just trying to be balanced, and make plays with our offense and run the ball."

Following a difficult third quarter on the ground, where the Bears gained no yards on four rushing attempts, Chicago got back to its potent running in the game's final 15 minutes. Trailing by a touchdown with 10 minutes to go, the team fed Howard, giving him four straight carries to start the drive, gaining 37 yards in the process. A 17-yard completion to Dontrelle Inman plus a 15-yard roughing the passer penalty followed, putting Chicago in Lions territory. Then Cohen did the rest.

On second-and-8 from the Detroit 15, Trubisky faked a handoff to fullback Michael Burton before tossing to Cohen. The back took the pitch at full speed and darted down the field toward the goal line, with only safety Glover Quin in position to cut him off. Quin dove to knock Cohen out of bounds near the 3-yard line, but instead of bracing for the hit, Cohen hurdled the defender, soaring into the end zone. As he was midair, Cohen took the ball from under his left arm and cradled it with both hands, guaranteeing he scored the points while making sure he didn't lose possession.

"I just knew I had to get to the pylon, or if (Quin) was going to meet me there first, I had to stop his feet," Cohen said. "I gave him a hesitation move, and then I just had to go over the top to try and stretch and get into the end zone."

That run would have been the game's most memorable, had Trubisky not upstaged it just a few minutes later. On Chicago's final drive, looking to tie or take the lead in the final 90 seconds of regulation, the rookie quarterback faced a do-or-die fourth-and-13. With no receivers open, Trubisky was chased to his left by rushing defenders, only to then be sent back to the middle of the field when pressure came the other way. As he cut up field towards the first-down line, safety Miles Killebrew appeared to be in position to stop him, but Trubisky evaded him with a hesitation move before sliding. The 19-yard run extended the drive and gave the Bears a chance at the end.

While the strong running didn't produce a victory versus the Lions, it is certainly a building block for the Chicago offense moving forward. The run-based offense is here to stay, and may keep improving as the year goes along.

"We feel like every game, (we have) one of the best offensive lines in the NFL," Cohen said. "It's like every game we play, we feel like we're going to have a good rushing day. Especially with Jordan, being the dominant back he is, and then me coming in with the change of pace. We feel like we're always going to have a good day."