LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Charles Tillman was asleep when President Obama gave him a big shout out on ESPN.
It’s one of the few times he wasn’t locked in.
The star cornerback has been turning heads everywhere with his play, even at the White House, and so have his teammates on the Chicago Bears’ defense.
A group that came into the season with some question marks is supplying plenty of answers and leading the way for a team that’s 7-1 heading into Sunday’s showdown with the Houston Texans.
A big part of that is Tillman, the guy Obama touted for defensive player of the year during an interview aired Monday night.
The praise came on the heels of Tillman forcing four fumbles in a 51-20 blowout of Tennessee the previous day.
“It was a great honor. I was actually asleep when he did the interview. I go to bed early — four kids,” said Tillman, whose wife is expected to give birth to their fourth child in the next few days. “I was asleep, but I had a bunch of text messages that morning when I woke up. I definitely thought it was cool to get mentioned from our Commander-in-Chief. Thanks for the shout out.”
It’s even better in a season like this.
The Bears lead the NFC North, and the defense is a big reason why. Few teams have been as dominant in that area, Houston being an exception, and the way they’re shutting down opponents is raising eyebrows.
A defensive line that was widely considered a weakness even with Julius Peppers is getting contributions from all over, and the Bears are tied for third in the NFL with 25 sacks. Eight more and they match last season’s total.
But it’s not just the pressure they’re getting; it’s the takeaways they’re creating.
No defense has been more relentless. Chicago leads the league in takeaways (28) and turnover differential (plus 16), and their seven defensive touchdowns tied the 1942 team’s record. All have come on interception returns, which puts them third on the NFL’s single season list behind the 1998 Seattle Seahawks (eight) and 1961 San Diego Chargers (nine).
“To have 28 in eight games is incredible,” Houston offensive coordinator Rick Dennison said. “Some teams wish for that in two years, so they’re always looking to get the ball. It all starts up front. They do a great job of pressuring and making sure you rush and putting your offensive linemen on an island at times from what they do. They work very hard at it and they’re good at it.”
Takeaways have been a hallmark of the Bears’ defense ever since coach Lovie Smith took over in 2004. They lead the league with 294 during that span and are second in interceptions (174) and fumble recoveries (120), but what’s happening this season is nothing short of extreme.
Brian Urlacher said he hasn’t seen anything like it.
“At any given time on Sunday, anyone on this defense can score,” he said. “We didn’t have that back in the day.”
Then, there’s Tillman, who finally made the Pro Bowl last season and is raising more eyebrows this year, whether he’s picking the ball off or punching it out of opponents’ arms.
In his 10th season, he leads the league with seven forced fumbles, and he made history with Lance Briggs earlier in the year when they became the first pair of teammates to return interceptions for touchdowns in back-to-back weeks.
For a guy who was overshadowed for most of his career, he sure is getting plenty of attention these days.
“He should’ve been getting it for the past 10 years,” Briggs said. “He’s played at a high level. He’s an elite player and has always played at a high level. Now, in Year 10, he’s taken it up to another level. He’s a defensive-player-of-the-year type player. He’s a core, he’s a leader and he’s one of our best players.”
And he’s going strong in his 30s, just like Briggs and Peppers. Urlacher’s had a rough time recovering from a knee injury, but he’s also coming off his best game after returning an interception for a touchdown, forcing a fumble and recovering one in last week’s blowout win at Tennessee.
It was another good sign for a defense that’s been, well, looking good.
“The chemistry on this group is special,” defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. “Guys are coachable. A big part of anything you do, you’ve got willing men, coachable, and we have a lot of fun.”
NOTES: WR Alshon Jeffery (hand), DT Matt Toeaina (calf) and Urlacher (coach’s decision) did not practice Thursday. ... DE Israel Idonije (ankle) and DT Henry Melton (back) were full participants after being limited the previous day.
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