One of the many questions about the 2017 Tampa Bay Buccaneers whose answer has been delayed by Hurricane Irma is how the team will integrate dynamic rookie tight end O.J. Howard into its offense. We may get our first hints on Sunday when the Buccaneers play their belated season opener against the Chicago Bears.
In contrast, the whole league has already taken notice of how the Bears are utilizing one of their new playmakers. While second-overall pick Mitchell Trubisky waits for his chance behind Mike Glennon and small-school pick Adam Shaheen (eight snaps in Week One) fights for playing time among a deep group of tight ends, one Chicago rookie has already made a big impact on the Bears' offense.
That would be the Human Joystick, fantasy waiver-wire darling Tarik Cohen. Cohen stands all of five-foot-six and 181 pounds and he comes from small school as well (North Carolina A&T) but he was the best thing the Bears attack had going in their near-upset of the Atlanta Falcons last Sunday.
That game, which didn't end until Glennon was sacked on a fourth down deep in Atlanta territory to preserve a 23-17 decision, would normally have been prime viewing for Tampa Bay coaches later Sunday evening and Buccaneer players later in the week. After all, Tampa Bay was supposed to be in Miami playing the Dolphins at the exact same time. However, with that game postponed until Week 11 due to Irma and the whole Bay area hunkered down for the hurricane's arrival on Sunday, Head Coach Dirk Koetter and Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith were able to watch it live from their offices.
A look back at all of the match-ups between the Buccaneers and the Bears.
Smith immediately noticed – as did many lesser-trained football minds – that the Bears were eager to get the football into the young running back's as many times and in as many ways as possible.
"By the way, he is a game wrecker," said Smith of Cohen, who accounted for more than a third of the Bears' yards from scrimmage against Atlanta. "He is a guy that can really scoot. He has great speed, he is not very tall, he can create matchup issues for our linebackers, and they want to get him the ball. I think he was targeted 12 times and I think he had eight catches. He had two explosive runs – one he circled the defense and looking at it, you would've thought they had him leveraged. He is a talented guy."
The play Smith describes began with a toss left to Cohen, who saw a wall of defenders and chose to reverse field to the right. After getting around the edge on his backfield pursuers, the rookie back shot through several defender at the line of scrimmage and broke out for a 46-yard gain to the Atlanta 22. Within the next handful of plays, the Bears threw a short pass to Cohen, handed it off to him in the backfield and even put him under center for a direct snap. That play was the drive's capper, as Cohen gave it to the Bears' 2016 rookie sensation, Jordan Howard, for a four-yard touchdown run.
Howard added 66 combined yards to Cohen's 113, giving an early indication that the two could be a very complementary duo, and a nightmare to opposing defenses.
"They definitely were wanting to have him be an integral part of what they want to do offensively," said Smith. "I think that the offensive line is probably the strength with the running backs. The running back, [Jordan Howard], that we played last year had two runs over 10 yards that I can recall off the top of my head. He is strong. We're going to have to tackle him. Coach [John] Fox is a defensive guy [and] I'm familiar with him, being in our division for so many years. It's going to be a challenge for us because they are going to try and run the ball and get the ball out on the perimeter to their guys that have the speed and the quickness to do that."
A look at the Buccaneers' Week 2 opponent.
That live Sunday viewing of Cohen and the Bears was obviously just the Bucs' beginning of their scouting of the Chicago-Atlanta game. The advantage for the Buccaneers doesn't spring from the hurricane-revised schedule but from the fact that they drew Chicago in Week Two instead of the opener. The Falcons wouldn't have had much advanced warning of what the Bears were planning for their rookie back; Cohen had all of 19 carries (albeit for a fine 121 yards) and no receptions in the preseason.
That said, the Bears don't have any regular-season Bucs tape that includes Howard, or any hint as to how the team will spread it around between him, fellow newcomer DeSean Jackson, Mike Evans, Cam Brate and Adam Humphries. Of course, Smith doesn't expect Chicago to run the exact same suite of plays this weekend at Raymond James Stadium, but at least they won't be able to surprise an unsuspecting defense with their electric rookie.
"Well I think each week it's a completely different animal in terms of what defense they're defending," said the Bucs' coordinator. "I think in terms of how they want to utilize their players – obviously, if it was Week One and we hadn't seen Cohen that would have been an advantage for them in terms of being able to spring him on the team that they're playing because he is a really challenging out so to speak, you know, to get him out. They definitely wanted to focus on him and get him the ball."
Chicago used Cohen in the backfield, in the slot and even split wide. On various plays he worked against corners, safeties and linebackers. The best-case scenario for the Bears is probably to get Cohen one-on-one in the open field with a linebacker who can't match his speed. Fortunately for the Buccaneers, they have quick – and confident – linebackers if those matchups are successfully created.
"He's a great player," said Buccaneers linebacker Kwon Alexander. "He's very fast. It's hard to stop him but we'll do that. They're just trying to get him the best places they can to get matchups, but we're going to have that under control."