Tillman master of takeaway

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Asked to rate his season on Thursday, Charles Tillman gave himself an "all right," which shows that even he can't fully appreciate what he does.

"Definitely, I could have done better," Tillman said. "I left a couple of plays out there."

For Tillman, you get the feeling that any play when he doesn't jar the ball loose from the ball carrier, it's a disappointment. It is what Lovie Smith and his coaching staff preach each day. It is what the Bears under Smith have built a reputation on and continued this season when they tied for third in the NFL in takeaways.

And it is Peanut's bread and butter.

Tillman turns 30 next month and if it feels a little old for a nickname like "Peanut," he has not noticeably slowed. This was the first of his eight NFL seasons, he pointed out proudly, that he started and played all 16 games.

"It just shows how hard this business is," he said. "So I've been very fortunate to be healthy this year.''

Tillman tied for the team lead in interceptions (five) and forced fumbles (three), tied for second in fumble recoveries (two) and was all alone in second in passes broken up (11). And if the Bears are to progress in these playoffs, it may well be largely because of him.

"If you're a playmaker, make plays," linebacker Lance Briggs said in reciting what he has learned from the playoffs. And Tillman is a playmaker.

With a secondary that was considered a weak link going into the season, Tillman looked like he was trying to carry the load with an interception in the season-opener against Detroit and six tackles and forced a fumble at Dallas the following week. But with the steadily improving play of Chris Harris, Danieal Manning, Tim Jennings and D.J. Moore, Tillman's season has almost been overlooked.

His interceptions came in the midst of big wins or, like his full layout and 42-yard return in Green Bay which preceded a Jay Cutler interception, went for naught.

But he ended up with 127 return yards off interceptions, which was third in the NFL and all totaled, they, well, added up. The Bears have won 17 of the past 21 games (81 percent) in which Tillman has had an interception, including four of five in 2010.

"We expect that from him," defensive end Israel Idonije said. "We know when we need a play, we can count on Peanut to come up with a big play for us. He makes our defense better, no question about it."

Tillman's low point this season coincided with that of the Bears', when receiver Mike Williams torched the Bears with 10 catches for 123 yards in the Seattle Seahawks' 23-20 victory on Oct. 17. And unfortunately for the Bears, at five inches shorter than Williams, Tillman is five inches closer to him than Jennings.

He may not love the island. But he doesn't hate it either.

"Revis Island or whatever island you want to call it -- that's essentially what it is. You are all alone, and you are by yourself," Tillman said in reference to the Jets' lockdown cover corner Darrelle Revis.

"As a corner in this business, if you play long enough, and you get the match up against the receiver and you go head-to-head, and you're competing, in a sense, you have to like it. At the end of the day, it's all about competition.

"I definitely think you have to like it."

What Tillman gives up in man-to-man ability, he generally makes up for it in solid tackling and, better yet, stripping the ball. Since he entered the league in 2003, he leads all NFL defensive backs in forced fumbles (24). He is also the only player in the league since that time with 20 forced fumbles and 20 interceptions.

He has played in two postseasons -- '05 and '06 -- four games in all, and has one forced fumble and one fumble recovery along with 29 tackles. And no, he did not think it would take four years to get back.

"I think one of the misconceptions is that most players who make it to the Super Bowl, they think that they can make it back next year," Tillman said. "I was one of those guys. After we lost to Indianapolis a couple of years ago, I was one of the guys who said, 'You know what, we'll be back next year.' And it just doesn't happen like that.''

Kind of like a takeaway. When the opportunity is there, you have to pounce on it.

''I think it's something that comes naturally, but at the same time, it's just being coached," Tillman said. "With [defensive coordinator] Rod [Marinelli], with [defensive backs] coach [Jon] Hoke, and [assistant] Gil [Byrd] and Coach Smith, they preach it every day over and over, takeaway, takeaway. Coach Rod always says you can't steal second with your foot on first. So that's kind of the attitude that we have. We try to pull the trigger, and if you're there, take it. Seize the moment.''

Tillman's teammates say it's no accident that he leads all Bears in takeaways under Smith.

"You can be coached," Manning said, "but you have to have that attempt. Peanut goes out to practice every day and he attempts it every day. And when you attempt it, sooner or later it's coming out. He's got that art down."

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.