By Chris Emma—
CHICAGO (CBS) – As the boos rained down from Soldier Field and the victorious six points were removed from the scoreboard, it became clear the Bears were still in position to pounce Sunday afternoon.
There was an air of confidence on the west sidelines as Chicago offense returned to the field tied at 17 and placed at the Pittsburgh 37-yard line in overtime. The Steelers were entirely drained by the Bears and their grinding ground game.
Sure enough, Jordan Howard finished it off by hitting the left edge for 18 yards, then going 19 to the end zone on his next carry for the 23-17 win. He tallied 138 yards and two scores on 23 carries, while rookie Tarik Cohen rushed for 78 yards on 12 carries, including that electrifying run that was called back to the Steelers’ 37 because he stepped out of bounds before he appeared to have won the game.
The Bears mixed their young tandem of Howard and Cohen to keep the Steelers uncomfortable defensively and rush for 220 yards in all. By the end, Howard, Cohen and a strong run-blocking performance up front wore out their opponent.
“It was a tribute to the guys up front,” Bears coach John Fox said. “Jordan Howard ran the ball hard out there. Obviously, Tarik (Cohen) had a good day. But it starts up front.”
In the past two years, Bears general manager Ryan Pace has identified two talented backs with third-day picks in the NFL Draft, selecting Howard in the fifth round in 2016 and taking Cohen in the fourth round this past April.
Howard broke the Bears’ rookie rushing record last season with 1,313 yards in 13 starts. He became the workhorse in the backfield and has flashed potential as the franchise’s next great running back. Cohen earned a role with an impressive training camp and hasn’t looked back. He has fit well in the backfield and also lined up out wide as a receiver.
Sunday revealed the Bears’ major void at receiver, with only one reception on four targets for the group. That was a nine-yard strike to Deonte Thompson that was stopped seven yards shy of the marker on third down. There’s little threat out wide for the Bears, making the running back tandem all the more important.
There’s little time for the Bears to re-evaluate a larger issue on offense with a short week before facing the Packers in Green Bay on Thursday night. And Fox isn’t fretting this issue, because there’s comfort in what the running game can bring.
The Bears can win games with Howard and Cohen.
“I feel like we can be the best running back tandem,” Cohen said after the game. “The things he does great, I can complement that. When he beats up a defense, I can come in and spark it up, maybe have a big run here and there. He can get in there and just do what he does – be that running back he was last year.”
Howard’s performance was especially impressive considering he was playing through the pain. He suffered a right shoulder injury diving for his first touchdown of the season in the opener. It’s a sprained AC joint, the NFL Network reported.
Twice in Sunday’s game, Howard remain down on the field for moments before walking off with trainers, but he wouldn’t let the pain slow him down.
Teammates watched as Howard battled through and created the dangerous duo with Cohen.
“He showed us again why he’s the type of back he is and why he gets so much respect,” defensive lineman Akiem Hicks said of Howard. “One thing about that guy is I never see him fall backwards. Isn’t that special? Tarik Cohen, he’s electric.”
After making his 2017 debut, Bears guard Kyle Long sat in his locker stall and rehashed the wild win. He said that the soreness felt after the game was from running the football 35 times with their two backs. Any lineman will say that’s a good kind of soreness after a key victory.
The Bears nearly cost themselves a shot at victory with self-inflicted wounds, but the cumulative effect of those 35 rushes ultimately made the difference.
A strong effort up front paved the way for Howard, Cohen and a Bears victory.
“Obviously, it’s not all going to be pretty,” Long said. “But if you stack them together and grind it out, there are going to be some good runs, as you saw at the end.”