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Which punch did you prefer during the most extraordinary individual performance in the NFL on Sunday and maybe the most extraordinary single game in the league this season?
There is much to be said for the first, when the performer in question, Charles Tillman, slipped in behind Titan receiver Kenny Britt and executed a clean, crisp right cross that popped the ball right out of the powerfully built receiver's hand on Tennessee's first offensive play of the game. Brian Urlacher crashed in for the recovery and the Bears were on their way.
The second punch was the veteran cornerback's short right to the midsection of running back Chris Johnson later in the first quarter, which was made possible by Lance Briggs being right there to assist on the tackle. In other words, Tillman could just focus on the football and not worry about taking Johnson down all by himself.
This had to be a fan's favorite fumble recovery of the day because it featured Tillman cleverly batting the ball away (how about the fact that there was discussion among the refs at that point about whether it was an illegal bat? Who knew there was such a thing?) from Johnson. It almost went out of bounds but then safety Chris Conte flew in and clearly secured possession just before he rolled onto the sideline. He did it so well that even though it was a close play there was no need for a video review.
Moral of the story: turnovers are team efforts (even if at this point Tillman has clearly earned some sort of mythical individual moniker - how about the "Titan of the Takeaway," which is only to be used when the Bears are not in the midst of a game with Tennessee of course).
Later in the second quarter, the only Titan fumble the Bears recovered on the day that wasn't forced by Tillman became the best illustration of how the team's determination to fly to the football on every play results in turnovers. After Urlacher knocked this one out of Johnson's hands and there were about four of his teammates diving in to try to grab the football before the Titans had even one other guy on the case. A few Bears missed but eventually Julius Peppers got it.
Tillman's third punch (executed with ten-and-a-half minutes left in the first half) was a jab and almost certainly the least noteworthy of the bunch. He delivered it after Titan receiver Craig Stevens had picked up 12 yards on a pass reception in front of him and the Bears did not recover.
And the fourth was a fourth-quarter uppercut. If the Titans weren't knocked out before that one, delivered to the Titans' Jared Cook with the resulting fumble recovered by Kelvin Hayden, they certainly were moments later when Jay Cutler fired his third and final touchdown pass to Brandon Marshall to give the Bears an awesome 50 points on the day.
At that point I started to worry about Tillman's health. I think after a football player makes his second or third big play of a game it should be team policy that teammates stop slapping him on the helmet. It was starting to look like the cornerback might go down with a concussion if his teammates didn't ease up on the celebration.
For Tillman it all added up to four forced fumbles in a single game, an unheard of number. Tillman now has 36 forced fumbles in his 10-year career (which gives fans an idea of how amazing it is to have four in a single game) to go with his 32 career interceptions. There is no real NFL record in this category because the league only started keeping track of forced fumbles a few decades ago. But suffice it to say it has been a long, long time since a single defender forced four fumbles in 60 minutes.
Football coaches have forever preached the importance of turnovers but the big plays have always seemed to come and go. Teams with big pass rushes have of course been more likely to force quarterbacks to cough up the football or make ill-advised passes that end up being picked off but otherwise there has been a certain randomness to takeaways.
The veteran cornerback might just force observers to reassess accepted wisdom about fumbles. Perhaps if a razor sharp veteran defender can put himself in the middle of plays with consistency and if he plays in a good enough defense where he is confident that if he goes for the ball first rather than the tackle, teammates will take care of taking a given ballcarrier down (and make recoveries), he can become the sort of forcing fumble machine that Tillman has been of late (he has seven on the year).
Another factor may have been a different atmosphere in training camp this season. There was the story early on of star receiver Marshall, who had arrived in a trade in the off-season, holding up a practice and beckoning to Tillman to come over and guard him during a drill instead of the scrub who had initially lined up at cornerback across from him. Tillman has been at the top of his game since play one this season and it certainly seems logical to conclude that he has benefited from better competition in practice.
The Bears have benefited from a veteran defense firing on all cylinders. And the most productive of those veterans has been the one who gives the Bears a puncher's chance for a turnover on every opposing possession.
Jim "Coach" Coffman is our man on Mondays. He welcomes your comments.