Listed at 5-foot-6, Bears running back Tarik Cohen stands an entire head and shoulders shorter than every other player on the Chicago roster. But what the rookie lacks in height, he more than makes up for it with elite elusiveness, acceleration, speed and drive.
On Sunday, in his professional regular-season debut, Cohen added 'historic' to the list of words that can describe his game. In a 23-17 loss to Atlanta at Soldier Field, Cohen had 66 rushing yards, 47 receiving yards and 45 punt return yards, all of which led the Bears in their respective departments. The 158 total yards were the most-ever by a Chicago rookie in a season-opening game, topping the 141 yards in Matt Forte's 2008 debut. In addition to the yardage, Cohen scored one touchdown and played a key role in another trip to the end zone for the Bears.
Besides the fact that we didn't come up with the win, it went pretty good," Cohen said. "The offensive line did a tremendous job blocking for me, springing me for good runs. Mike [Glennon] did a tremendous job getting to the check-down and getting me the ball."
Offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains made it a priority to get Cohen the ball early and often versus a fast and aggressive Falcons defense. On Chicago's first offensive drive of the game, Cohen took a short pass and turned it into an 8-yard pickup, embarrassing an Atlanta defender in the process with his shifty moves. In the second quarter, he took a toss to the left, saw the defense pursuing, and crisscrossed the field, changing directions on a dime. That's the elusiveness. Then came the acceleration, running past two Atlanta defenders until he got past the line of scrimmage. Then came the speed, cruising down the right sideline. Finally, there was the drive, running over one Falcon and dragging another down the field until he was pushed out of bounds with a gain of 46 yards.
"He's a baller," tight end Zach Miller. "Ain't no denying the fact that the kid is special. All over the place too – in the backfield, catching footballs, split out and running after the catch. He's special, and it's fun playing ball with him."
Even with the presence of second-year running back Jordan Howard, who finished the game with 66 yards from scrimmage of his own, Cohen was constantly involved. Loggains even figured out a way to get the two running backs on the field simultaneously, which led to Chicago's first touchdown of the game. With 20 seconds remaining in the second quarter, the Bears used a version of the Wildcat formation, with Glennon split out wide and both Cohen and Howard in the backfield. The rookie took the snap, read the defense and opted to hand off to Howard, who ran off the right end–thanks to a block from his quarterback–for the score.
But Cohen saved his greatest highlight for after halftime, specifically the fourth quarter, when the Bears offense needed him most. Trailing by 10 points following a Falcons touchdown, Chicago dialed up the rookie's number time and time again. On the ensuing drive following the Atlanta score, Glennon targeted Cohen four times. The final throw was one that will be shown over-and-over in highlight videos for years to come, not because of Glennon's pass–though it was impressive–but because of what the rookie did after he caught it.
On first-and-10 at the Atlanta 19, Glennon lined up in the shotgun, with Cohen standing to his right. Glennon fired a bullet pass to Cohen at the 10. The rookie hesitated and made a move, trying to elude Atlanta defensive back Desmond Trufant. When Trufant didn't fall for any of the shakes, Cohen decided to just run him over, lowering his shoulder and taking the ball, and the Falcons corner, with him across the goal line.
"(Cohen) is the best athlete on the field at all times," said receiver Josh Bellamy. "I've never been around a guy like that. People see him, and he's so small they might not know what he's capable of.
"Tarik's small, but he's tough. He's got the heart of a lion. He's going to run the ball, it doesn't matter what size you are, he's coming."
Glennon was asked after the game about Cohen's performance, and the quarterback said "the secret's out" on what the Bears have in the rookie. Teams will be able to prepare for the different ways he can impact a game. But seeing him on film is different than tackling him on the field, and along with all his other terrific attributes, Cohen also has plenty of confidence. Every week, he'll be a big part of the Chicago offense. The rookie is more than ready to provide more game-breaking, and jaw-dropping, plays for the Bears' offense.
"I'm pleased by the fact that I was able to make plays," Cohen said. "Not really caught up on the stats, how many rushing yards I had, how many receiving yards. Just the fact that I was able to be accountable when my number was called on."