Huge for the Bears, he’s just 5-foot-6

The Sun Herald (Sunday) - - Sports - BY BEN SHPIGEL

LAKE FOR­EST, ILL.

Dur­ing a re­cent prac­tice,

Tarik Co­hen caught a punt. Still clutch­ing the ball, he pro­ceeded to catch an­other. And an­other. And an­other. And an­other. And an­other.

And an­other.

By the end of this wacky ex­per­i­ment, Co­hen was cradling seven balls — one, roughly, for ev­ery role he has with the Chicago Bears.

Co­hen is — OK, deep breath — the Bears’ hand­off-tak­ing, punt-re­turn­ing, ball-catch­ing, pass-throw­ing, mis­match-cre­at­ing, gasp-in­duc­ing, high­light-mo­nop­o­liz­ing cy­borg. A year af­ter be­com­ing the first rookie since Gale Say­ers, a former

Bear, in 1965, to con­trib­ute touch­downs by run­ning, re­ceiv­ing, pass­ing and punt re­turn, Co­hen has fur­ther oblit­er­ated con­cerns that a 5-foot-6 run­ning back from the hum­ble Foot­ball Cham­pi­onship Sub­di­vi­sion would strug­gle tran­si­tion­ing to the NFL’s rugged NFC North.

If the quar­ter­back-wreck­ing edge rusher Khalil Mack em­bod­ies a de­fense that has fu­eled the Bears’ worst-to-first as­cent — as the NFC’s third seed, they'll face the No. 6-seeded Ea­gles in the wild-card round Sun­day, their first play­off ap­pear­ance since 2010 — Co­hen per­son­i­fies the of­fense in­stalled by the

team’s first-year coach, Matt Nagy: cre­ative, un­pre­dictable and, at times, down­right fun.

Nagy has max­i­mized Co­hen’s speed, sud­den­ness and re­ceiv­ing skills by align­ing him around the for­ma­tion, from the back­field to the in­side to the out­side, turn­ing him into, in ef­fect, Chicago’s of­fen­sive ver­sion of Mack: the player op­po­nents must stalk wher­ever he is on the field. He led the team in catches (71), yards from scrim­mage (1,169) and all-pur­pose yardage (1,599), and was voted into the Pro Bowl as a re­turn spe­cial­ist.

“He’s got a lot of strengths and not a lot of weak­nesses,” Nagy said. “Hav­ing him be a part of what we do and what we scheme is a huge ad­van­tage.”

Soon af­ter the Bears hired Nagy away from Kansas City, where he served for five sea­sons on Andy Reid’s staff, Co­hen heard that last sea­son the Chiefs fea­tured three play­ers who gained more than 1,000 yards: re­ceiver Tyreek Hill, tight end Travis Kelce and run­ning back Ka­reem Hunt. Co­hen did not know when or how he would get the ball in Chicago, he said, only that he would.

“Get me the ball and get me in space,” Co­hen said.

That just might be his motto. His 170 touches rank sec­ond on the team, be­hind Jor­dan Howard, the pri­mary rusher. As a run­ner, Co­hen has the sev­enth-best break­away per­cent­age in the NFL, gain­ing 44.4 per­cent of his 444 yards on car­ries of at least 15 yards, ac­cord­ing to Pro Foot­ball Fo­cus. As a re­ceiver, Co­hen av­er­ages 10.2 yards per re­cep­tion, most among the 20 backs with at least 40 catches, ac­cord­ing to Pro Foot­ball Ref­er­ence.

As the po­si­tion has evolved, a hy­bridized strain of run­ning back has per­me­ated the league, play­ers as com­fort­able with, and ca­pa­ble of, lin­ing up in the slot or be­ing split wide as they are rush­ing 20 times per game.

BEN SOLOMON NYT

Chicago run­ning back Tarik Co­hen hauls in a catch in East Ruther­ford, N.J.

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