Bears cornerback Charles Tillman (33) chases after and recovers a fumble by Chargers running back Ryan Matthews in the third quarter. The Chicago Bears defeated the San Diego Chargers 31-20 Sunday November 20, 2011 at Soldier Field. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times
Charles Tillman played so well last week against Detroit star Calvin Johnson that the inevitable happened: People in town were tripping over each other to put the Bears cornerback in the Pro Bowl.
Then Sunday happened, and you can bet the Pro Bowl talk this week will be somewhere between a whisper and a dog whistle.
But here’s the thing: Tillman is not as good as he was last week, and he’s not as bad as he was Sunday against the Chargers’ Vincent Jackson.
This is what he is: He’s the guy who, despite getting torched like a underworld arson job, caused a fumble and recovered it, helping the Bears to a 31-20 victory at Soldier Field.
If you concentrate on that, you won’t forget that Jackson finished with 165 yards and a touchdown on seven receptions, but you will remember what the Bears are in this for. The victory was their fifth straight.
On Sunday, Tillman was the extreme embodiment of coach Lovie Smith’s bend-don’t-break defensive philosophy. Give up all the yards you want, but make a play that changes the game.
That came in the third quarter. The Bears had just taken a 24-17 lead in a game that looked like it was going to be a back-and-forth shootout until the very end. San Diego running back Ryan Matthews went around end for six yards but then made the mistake a lot of players have made over the years: He offered a certain Bears cornerback a glimpse of the ball. Tillman, while making the tackle, punched at it and connected.
You know the drill: fumble, bouncing ball, Tillman recovery, atonement.
Two plays later, the Bears were in the end zone on Johnny Knox’ beautiful, 24-yard touchdown catch. In a blink, it was now 31-17.
It was as if all the things Tillman does well and does poorly were supersized Sunday. That fumble?
“Jackson was blocking me pretty good, so I just really tried to get some real estate back and just stick my hand in there,’’ he said. “And I got lucky.’’
It’s not luck if it happens all the time. It was the 27th forced fumble of his career, the most in the league for defensive backs since 2003. The Bears are to the point where they just shake their heads when it happens.
“We try to figure out like, ‘How do you do it?’ ’’ Bears cornerback Tim Jennings said. “But he has a knack for it. He practices it every day in practice. He’s going to at least get one or two [fumbles] in practice.’’
“It’s like he sticks his hand in there, and it magically falls out,’’ wide receiver Roy Williams said.
“No one can do it like he can,’’ Smith said.
The fumble recovery doesn’t change the reality that Jackson had his way with Tillman on Sunday, but it does change the way you view reality: OK, he messed up the carpet, but he rescued the family, too.
It’s the life of the cornerback. Tillman has been at it for nine years.
“When you’re on the island, you’ve really just got to let the plays go,’’ he said. “A win is a win. I don’t care how we got it. … You’ve just got to let them go and just bounce back next week.’’
Oahu’s an island, too, but now that the Pro Bowl talk will go away for a while, maybe everybody can get down to the important stuff. To a point, that involves understanding what went wrong Sunday. Tillman is not going to enjoy watching the film of this game.
“[Jackson] won the battle,’’ Tillman said. “I think he did a good job of running some routes that fooled me on some double moves that got me. I bit on them.’’
The Bears realized that the best way to stop Philip Rivers and the San Diego offense is to not give them the ball. And when they do have it, to take it away. The Chargers had only four plays in the fourth quarter. Two of those were Rivers’ interceptions.
“We’re streaking, and I mean that in a good way, a legal way,’’ Tillman said, smiling.
There were times Sunday when he must have felt naked. But not all the time, and that’s the important thing.
How did the Bears go from 2-3 to 7-3?
“By refusing to lose,’’ Tillman said. “I think we know how to win. We battle adversity at times. … At the end of the day, we just know how to win.’’