All season long, rookie running back Tarik Cohen has displayed how unique and transformative of a talent he is. Nearly every week, he seems to top himself with new game-changing and draw-dropping plays. There was his weaving 46-yard run in the season opener against Atlanta, a diving 15-yard score a few weeks back against Detroit, and even a 21-yard touchdown pass he threw against Baltimore on October 15.
On Sunday, Cohen one-upped himself again. Facing San Francisco at Soldier Field, Cohen was a one-man show for the Bears, doing everything he could with the ball in his hand to try and get his team the win. And though Chicago fell short on the scoreboard, losing 15-14, Cohen created a new electrifying highlight that will be admired on YouTube clips for many years to come.
The play came midway through the second quarter, after the Bears halted the 49ers' offense and forced a punt from the San Francisco 17-yard line. Niners punter Bradley Pinion struck the ball well and booted it 44 yards, forcing Cohen to back up a bit before catching it at the Chicago 39-yard line and giving his own coverage team a chance to sprint downfield. When Cohen brought the ball in, the three players closest to him all wore red and gold, so cutting upfield looked impossible. Inste,ad the rookie returner looped around and went the other way, sprinting backwards and towards the right sideline as several San Francisco players gave chase. This route allowed Chicago's blockers to re-align themselves in case Cohen turned around, which he eventually did.
"It was designed to go left, but he turned it to the right, so I did what I could to make my block," said linebacker Jonathan Anderson, one of the up-men on the Chicago punt return unit responsible for creating a route for Cohen to run through. Once Cohen reversed field back to his right–by then at the Chicago 30-yard line and six 49ers in pursuit–Anderson was ready for him. The linebacker threw a crushing block, giving Cohen a crease to cut through up the field. That was all Cohen needed, as he sprinted straight through the coverage unit, going the rest of the way to the end zone untouched.
Officially, Cohen was credited for a 61-yard punt return, but the CBS television broadcast reported he ran more than twice that–127 yards–to go from the spot he caught the punt to the end zone.
"I was worried I might get tackled for a loss of yards," Cohen said following the game. "But then in that case, like my coaches always tell me, I had to trust my speed, just to with the plan, and go back left."
The punt return touchdown was the first of Cohen's career, which put him in exclusive company. He now has a rushing, receiving, passing and return touchdown this year, becoming the first rookie to do that in their first pro season since Gale Sayers did it for the Bears in 1965. The last veteran player to pull that off was Terry Metcalf, who did it in 1975 for the St. Louis Cardinals.
"It's great to be in company with Gale Sayers, one of the greatest running backs not only in Chicago Bears history, but in the NFL," Cohen said. "So just to be among that namesake, it's wonderful."
Cohen ran each way to take the ball back all the way. Backwards and forwards, left and right he went on the touchdown return, tiring out the 49ers coverage team in the process. But the rookie wasn't worn out. In the fourth quarter, Cohen almost took another one to the house, returning a punt 67 yards with more dizzying moves. However, that was called back due to an illegal block in the back penalty.
On the first play of the Chicago drive following that negated return, Cohen got some of the yardage back, gaining 21 off a short pass from Mitchell Trubisky that the running back turned into a big gain.
"(Tarik's) awesome. We just need to continue to find ways to get him the ball, he's so explosive," Trubisky said of his fellow rookie. "He's exactly what you want in a teammate. He has that competitive fire."
In the days leading up to Sunday's game, Cohen had been telling safety Eddie Jackson that he was due to get in the end zone soon on a return. There had been some chances early in the season, but in the four games preceding Sunday's contest with the 49ers, Cohen had been forced to fair-catch half of the punts going his way. It didn't appear San Francisco would present an opportunity to give Cohen much of a chance either, as the 49ers allowed just 2.5 yards per punt return heading into Week 13, fewest in the NFL.
However, Cohen has a way to make things change in a hurry. He's shown all season long how elusive he can be with the ball in his hands. Sunday was no different, as Cohen ran around and through the San Francisco coverage team and into the highlight reels.