Commentary

Strip saves Tillman's long day

Chargers exploit Bears cornerback, but he bounces back with forced fumble, recovery

Updated: November 21, 2011, 10:03 AM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- After a game that typified his position, and perhaps his career, cornerback Charles "Peanut" Tillman eyed his button-down pursuers warily with his red-tinted contact lenses.

"You guys waiting for me?" he asked a group of reporters in the locker room, as he put on his black Hugo Boss jeans, Gucci belt and Gucci shoes. "I can't sneak away?"

[+] EnlargeCharles Tillman
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastCharles Tillman, right, made one of his trademark plays in the third quarter Sunday, stripping San Diego's Ryan Mathews and recovering the fumble. The Bears scored two plays later.
Tillman likes to be difficult with the media. It's the everyday defense he plays, the Don't-Cover-Me.

"The only reason I talk to y'all is because they make me," he said with a half-smile after the Bears' convincing 31-20 victory over the San Diego Chargers, their fifth consecutive win. "I'm only doing this because [Bears PR guy Scott] Hagel keeps making me talk to y'all."

Tillman had a game to forget or remember, depending on your take. Do you believe in the journey or the destination? Do you grade on perfection or embrace the redemptive nature of the game?

Tillman definitely had a rough ride against the Chargers' top receiver, Vincent Jackson, who gained 165 yards on seven catches, including a 5-yard touchdown in the third quarter that tied the game.

But he also executed a textbook Tillman play, the sleight-of-hand strip. That turnover turned into a Bears touchdown and extended a second-half lead.

Does one good play erase a game full of bad ones?

"You know what? Going into a game you're going to make mistakes," Tillman said. "It's just really bouncing back and not letting those plays get the best of you the entire game. You're going to make mistakes in the game. It's just dealing with them afterward."

The Bears' defense is infamous for giving up chunks of yardage before forcing turnovers or flustering the offense into certain short-yardage plays. There were too many big plays for the Chargers in Sunday's game, but only two touchdowns.

Chicago gave up 332 yards, but only 112 came in the second half. Of course, San Diego only got off four plays in the fourth quarter, and two resulted in interceptions.

The Bears' defense is playing as well as can be expected right now, and with Jay Cutler out for a long while with a thumb injury, they need to be even better … as in, no more big plays, just a stream of forced fumbles.

With Tillman shadowing him, Jackson was targeted nine times, mostly downfield. He was operating from the edge and the slot, and getting space.

Jackson and quarterback Philip Rivers connected on five completions of great length: 24 yards, 32, 39, 47 and 17. Those numbers added up to a long day at the office.

"They pay him a lot of money to make those plays," Tillman said. "Obviously they pay me a lot of money to stop him from making those plays. It was competition, and he won a lot of those battles today. I can't deny that."

"I think he did a good job running some routes that fooled me on some double moves," he said. "I bit on them."

Rivers, dangerous enough already, had plenty of time to throw. He wasn't sacked and was barely rushed. When that happens, the island grows more isolated, as Jackson explained.

"He's a great player, a lot of respect for Charles," Jackson said. "Some of those coverages they're in puts him out there, exposes him by himself. Me and Philip, [the] thing we've been doing the past few years, kind of tough for anybody to cover us one-on-one down the field."

There are things you can't control, but one the thing Tillman can do is force turnovers.

"No one can do it like he can," coach Lovie Smith said.

On a series in the third quarter, after he was victimized twice, Tillman forced his third fumble of the season and the 27th of his career, punching the ball out of running back Ryan Mathews' arm on a 6-yard run. Tillman then recovered the fumble, and two plays later the Bears scored to go up 31-17.

"That's cornerback play in general," said Tillman's opposite, Tim Jennings. "They're going to make some plays; we're going to make some plays. So a good veteran cornerback doesn't let one play stick in his head. You gotta come back and play the next play, and that's what he did."

This is Tillman's ninth season in the National Football League, all with the Bears. He knows this team, this defense and this city, inside and out. And no one personifies the Bears' defense more than Tillman. Not even Brian Urlacher.

Urlacher plays in the heartland, while Tillman is on his island. Urlacher is the strong man in the circus, Tillman is the magician. The Bears' defense doesn't work without unexpected turnovers, and the forced fumble is a Smith and Tillman specialty.

Tillman's coverage skills were on display last week as he shut down Calvin Johnson in a blowout win, and also returned an interception for a touchdown. The talk turned to Pro Bowl and career appreciation this week.

Then on Sunday, karma came in the form of Vincent Jackson. But Tillman didn't let the particulars get him down. He just forgot his troubles and did what he's paid handsomely to do: make a play.

"I tried to make up for it with the strip," he said. "But when you're on that island, you really just got to let those plays go."

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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