Game: Atlanta Falcons at Chicago Bears
Play: Cohen makes good on his nickname
What makes this the BTS Play of the Week?
Here we are again! Oh sweet Movement Play of the Week breakdown & analysis, how I have missed you! It’s hard to believe that we are now on our fifth season of highlighting the play (sometimes plays) that I feel represents the league’s best for that week from a movement skill performance point of view.
With every year that passes by, I am glad to say that this never gets old. Nothing excites me quite like watching elite athletes problem solving with their movement, under the sometimes unfathomably complex, pressure & anxiety-filled contextual demands that the NFL represents.
On that note, one of the great things about the NFL is that on any given Sunday (or Thursday or Monday night), we can find literally dozens of plays where I feel as though extraordinary motor behavior lived & breathed. Note: This abundance of movement skill displayed exists in spite of the truth that I’ve stated here on this blog before…movement skill in the NFL could stand to get even better given the nature of the athletes within it and the lack of quality of the practice methods sometimes prescribed.
But enough soapbox time for me! It’s time to recognize the real star of the show in Week 1 of the 2017 campaign and break down what allowed him to do what he did! Like any other week, this week’s recipient received stiff competition from the likes of Antonio Brown splitting the Browns defense & slashing through them in his normal, skillful way. I will say, AB84 doing what he did on that play (even though it is the Browns as the opponent), executing multiple precisely timed, sharp deceleration actions at high speeds is usually enough to get the nod.
However, there was another movement performance that reigned in higher supreme, the execution of a rookie RB who I think we all will be seeing plenty of highlights of this season. No; it wasn’t Christian McCaffrey, Leonard Fournette, or Dalvin Cook. Shoot, if not one of them, then it had to be Kareem Hunt or Joe Mixon, right? Wrong again. The performance was that of a guy that most haven’t heard of but they know who he is now; Tarik Cohen of the Chicago Bears. I mean c’mon…the guy has the nickname “The Human Joystick” so how could I not love him?! Besides, showing out and solving problems on an NFL field in one’s very first regular season outing is impressive in and of itself! To do it facing the defending Conference Champions with a whole host of worthy movers on the other side; even more impressive!
What happened movement-wise on the play?
While you don’t get the nickname, “The Human Joystick” by not having supreme agility skills, you also don’t become an unknown if you are playing college football at a powerhouse. Hence the reason it’s likely that many out there have never heard of Tarik Cohen. The 5’6”, 181lb (how could I not love this guy?) back is out of North Carolina A&T where he played four record-breaking seasons. It was actually because of this that I first got to hear of Cohen when I got an opportunity to watch him do his thing in a game last season versus Kent State where he evaded the tackles of what felt like all 11 defenders multiple times on one single play (he ran for 250+ yards that day, I believe). After that game, I actually went and watched some of the highlights from the previous three seasons and I was very impressed.
However, with watching how he achieved many of those performances (even with the bias of the fond appreciation of agile movers that I hold deep in my heart), I couldn’t help but question how much his skill set would transfer to the game at the next level, the NFL, this season. The game is just a tad faster after all (insert sarcasm). Well, even though he’s featured here this week from the first regular season game of his NFL career, it will still take a whole season to determine what gaps may exist in his movement toolbox (as teams begin to get more film on him, become familiar with how he moves, how he adapts under more complex/diverse problems in the NFL, etc) and how successful he can be over the long haul. It’s a story with a movement riddle that I, for one, will be following closely all season.
But onto giving credit where credit is due…Tarik torched the Falcons and left their defenders with their heads turning and eyes buzzing…living up to his nickname. I could’ve picked a few plays from Sunday to illustrate but the one that I did pick came in the 2nd quarter, 3:55 to go, on 2nd & 7 from the Bears’ 28 yard line.
Cohen is the lone deep back lined up 6 yards behind QB, Mike Glennon, who’s under center. Glennon takes the snap and tosses the ball wide to the strong side moving Cohen. The flow of the very athletically-stacked Falcon defense follows. The ball is pitched a tad high which actually probably is a blessing in that Cohen, though most definitely fixated on the primary task of first receiving the ball, gets an opportunity to allow his peripheral vision to briefly take in information regarding the pursuit of Falcons DE, #50, Brooks Reed, which will later be really useful information to be aware of.
Cohen continues running nearly completely lateral to his left, only progressing vertically up the field by around one yard. This perspective keeps him 5 to 7 yards behind his offensive line at all times and in perceptual awareness on any potential holes & gaps in the defense that could have potentially opened up (i.e. to no avail). This distance is a likely an optimal one (a topic I have been exploring & investigating more of lately) which allows Cohen’s visual system a wide enough of a perspective to understand what potential opportunities for action exist (aka affordances for action). It’s also enough for him to know for certain, that due to the lack of a hole being where it was supposed to be, he must abandon ship on the tactical strategy and do what he (and other great movers) does best; adapt!
Knowing that the last information that he likely gathered on Reed was that he was coming in hot behind him with a head of steam, Cohen decides to use this to his advantage. When he is approaching the numbers, still running at between the 21 and 22 yard line, he elects to come to a screeching halt and throws down the breaks into an angular deceleration stop which will create an efficient & effective technical opportunity to completely change direction.
From this deceleration to cutting pattern, guys really have three options for reacceleration in the cut; 1). Transition into a few shuffle steps which will open up further movement options & directions. 2). Crossover off the left foot with the left leg traveling across the body (not a bad choice giving Cohen’s low COM). 3). Execute a rapid, power jab step with the right foot. Cohen elects to go with the 3rd option here. This is one which keeps his movement options open (which was the best feature and accomplishes the objective that hitting a few transition steps would have) just in case Reed wasn’t far enough to Cohen’s left in his pursuit.
When he’s in middle of executing his power jab step (it’s in its pattern striking back & away from the flexed position and prior to touching the ground), you can see his visual gaze fixate on Reed and the other two Falcon defenders who have joined the pursuit party in the backfield. Though NFL players possess much more diverse movement toolboxes than those that Cohen faced at NC A&T, Cohen still believes he has them right where he wants them (and he’s right!). Reed’s momentum has him moving too quickly to completely control his own deceleration action and transition to close the distance enough to tackle Cohen or slow him down enough to allow his Linebacking buddies to do so. Honestly, Reed does a much better job here in this action than most defensive ends will (even the super athletically-gifted ones in the League); he forces Cohen to take several hockey-striding steps to get out of his outstretched arms which causes Cohen to actually lose ground at the immediate moment but gain ground when it comes to solving the movement problem!
After Cohen fully bypasses Reed, he has enough kinesthetic sense & awareness to realize that the distance & spacing between he and the other Falcons defender in the backfield are not a match with their action capabilities so he moves to solving the next problem that lies in front of him (i.e. where his path should continue to and what lies ahead in the landscape). Cohen, still only on the 22 yard line but on the right hash now, is in full acceleration mode which, over short distances, is extraordinary based on the physical constraints he operates within (in a nutshell; powerful build on a shorter frame). Because of this, he covers the next 8 yards in a hurry all while processing the surrounding layout of his guys versus the Falcons defenders.
At around the 25 yard line, all the way to the 29 yard line, Cohen utilizes the blocking efforts of his quarterback in the open field to give himself the option to go either direction (to the left of Glennon back into the teeth of the defense or to the right of Glennon to head towards the sideline) once the time calls for it. This time comes at the 30 yard line when an adequate gap has opened up AND when the Joystick has built up too much speed for the problem that has unfolded in front of him. The left crossover cut that changes his directional angle may look very subtle here and easy to control…but don’t let Cohen’s execution fool you! This cut, at the type of speeds that Cohen was already traveling, is NOT easy to control or handle the loading forces on…but of course, Cohen does so with great effectiveness; so much so that he loses very little speed and is able to stay in full acceleration mode to move through the created gap.
As he passes Glennon (who has more than adequately fulfilled his blocking duties), the CB that the QB was blocking, Desmond Trufant, will now enter the problem and become another attempting tackler from behind Cohen who has a full head of linear speed steam now. In fact, Trufant, #21 (wait; they even allow a Falcon CB to wear Deion’s number?!) would be the one to ultimately bring him down after LB, Deion Jones, is able slow him down and knock him off his path ever so slightly but not bring him to the ground. This point where Trufant succeeds doesn’t come until Cohen is past the Falcon’s 30 yard line and has amassed 46 exciting yards.
Of course, what we see throughout this play that makes it so damn special is true reactive agility. Sure; there are supremely crisp cutting patterns displayed (the angular power cut and the crossover cut) but it’s the perception-action coupling that makes this play extraordinary along with the functional adaptation that this young rookie (regardless of what his nickname is) stayed calm in control of its execution of.
You can watch the Joystick doing his thing here: