Strength against strength
Lions’ Johnson aims for milestone against Tillman
LAKE FOREST – Calvin Johnson is chasing an eye-popping statistic.
The Bears are pursuing a place in the playoffs and a shot at the Super Bowl.
It’s possible that both parties could achieve their goals Sunday when the Bears (9-6) play the Detroit Lions (4-11) at Ford Field in the regular-season finale. But if the Bears figure out a way to limit Johnson, they could be well on their way to a victory.
For any other team, stopping Johnson would qualify as wishful thinking. He already has surpassed Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice for the most receiving yards in a season with 1,892, and he needs 108 receiving yards to reach 2,000.
No one in NFL history has made plays quite like Johnson.
Then again, no one has defended receivers quite like Charles Tillman.
Bears coach Lovie Smith has had a front-row seat to Tillman since 2004.
“[He has] great size for a corner, great ball skills,” Smith said after practice Thursday at Halas Hall. “He’s a competitor as much as anything. That’s what you have to be. You can have talent, but you have to be willing to play every snap.
“You can’t let down for a play against a great player like Calvin Johnson. I think the good players look forward to that challenge. He’s as good as there is.”
Tillman, 31, earned his second straight Pro Bowl selection this week in large part because of his ability to shut down top receivers. He did so in Week 7 against the Lions when he limited Johnson to three catches for 34 yards on 11 targets.
In the days leading up to his first game of the season against the Lions, Tillman said a short memory was important when defending Johnson.
“I know going into the game, he’ll win some, I’ll win some,” Tillman said. “The goal is just to try to win more individual plays than he does.”
Regardless of the measurement, Tillman has proved to be one of the top playmakers on the league’s fifth-ranked defense. He has 89 tackles, 13 pass break-ups, 10 forced fumbles, three interception returns for touchdowns and two forced fumbles this season.
His ability to create takeaways is nothing new to his coaches.
“It’s off the charts,” said Bears defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, whose coaching career started in 1976 at Utah State. “I’ve said for 3 years now, there’s nobody in the history of this league who can pull a ball out like that guy. Nobody.
“And then you add his toughness, his ability to re-route, to play man [coverage], all the things we ask him to do. And he’s a takeaway machine. He’s special.”
Tillman, who is under contract through the 2013 season, has showed no signs of slowing down. Whenever he does decide to retire, his teammates will be reminded of him every time a defender clenches his fist and punches at a ball to force a fumble.
“ ‘Peanut’ [is] really revolutionizing the game, the way he plays it,” Bears linebacker Lance Briggs said. “I know there’s a lot of high school and Pee Wee coaches that are changing the way that they coach defense because of him.”