How Might the Bears Dynamic Running Back Duo Be Deployed in 2018?

| June 26th, 2018

The Bears have two very good and very different running backs in Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen. Howard is a bigger, more physical runner, while Cohen is a smaller scatback. Both were effective in different ways last year, and today I want to dig a little bit deeper into:

  • How they were used differently.
  • Where they were most effective.
  • How they might best be used on the ground in Chicago’s new offense.

I’ll start by looking at where each player runs, with a special shout out to DBB reader EnderWiggin for this idea. Using the Pro Football Reference Game Play Finder, I tracked how often both Howard and Cohen ran between the tackles vs. outside last year, and how effective they were doing so.

I also compared this to the NFL average in 2017 and the Kansas City average running Andy Reid’s offense (which Matt Nagy will presumably be doing in Chicago) from 2013-17. Results are shown in the table below (ypc = yards per carry).

A few thoughts here:

  • Tarik Cohen ran outside a whole bunch, and was very ineffective running between the tackles when asked to do so. That’s a potential problem going forward, and it will be interesting to see if it changes in 2018 and beyond. Cohen has noted he got most of his yards in college on inside zone runs.

  • Compared to the NFL average, Howard ran outside a lot in 2017 as well. That’s consistent with 2016, when he was outside 59% of the time, but his effectiveness on those runs varied tremendously. In 2016, Howard averaged 5.9 yards per carry outside the tackles, while that plummeted to only 3.7 yards per carry in 2017. That’s really the difference between his 2016 and 2017 seasons; his inside runs remained fairly consistent at 4.3 (2016) and 4.5 (2017). As I noted back in February, that was largely due to a drop in efficiency running to the right side, which I believe was due more to predictable play calling than anything else (though I don’t have stats to back this up).
  • If Nagy installs his offense from Kansas City, the Bears are going to feature a lot more inside runs; KC only ran it outside 44% of the time when Andy Reid was there, and that dropped to 33% when Matt Nagy called plays last year (which is admittedly a small sample size of only 5 games). The inside zone run is a staple of this offense, and it will be interesting to see if they shift that a bit more to the outside given that is where Howard and Cohen have both done their best work.
  • It’s worth noting that these inside/out splits can vary even within the same offense. Doug Pederson runs a version of the Reid offense in Philadelphia, where 56% of their runs have been outside of the tackles in his two years there. Andrew Link of Windy City Gridiron has a great look at film of the inside vs. outside zone and what that could mean for Chicago.

Cohen vs. Sproles

I want to turn now to that Philadelphia comparison in a little more detail, especially when considering that the Eagles have had Darren Sproles (when healthy) for the last two years. Sproles is a player that Tarik Cohen gets compared to quite often, so looking at how the Eagles used Sproles might provide a bit of a blueprint for how the Bears can be expected to use Cohen. Some relevant stats for the two are provided in the table below, using only Sproles’ 2016-17 seasons.

A few thoughts:

  • Notice the total involvement in the offense isn’t huge for either player, at least by running back standards. About 10 touches per game is probably the ideal target for somebody who is “bulked up” to only 190 pounds. You just don’t want somebody that small getting plastered by bigger defenders 15-20 times a game. Cohen is best used as a complementary weapon who can change how defenses play simply by his presence on the field.
  • These statistics suggest that Cohen’s usage probably won’t change all that much going forward. He’ll likely continue to have just under a 2:1 run:pass ratio, with most of the runs going outside. How those runs set up, and how pass plays headed his way are designed for him, will likely change, ideally in a way that utilizes his playmaking ability better than the Bears did in 2017, but the volume and ratios of touches probably will remain fairly similar.

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