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Bears’ heroics in secondary depend on front four getting it done

Bears rush specialist Henry Melt(69) linebacker Lance Briggs put Colts quarterback Andrew Luck turf. | Jonathan Daniel~Getty Images

Bears rush specialist Henry Melton (69) and linebacker Lance Briggs put Colts quarterback Andrew Luck on the turf. | Jonathan Daniel~Getty Images

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Another award for Charles Tillman? The last time he was this hot . . . he was torched by the San Diego Chargers’ Vincent Jackson, who had most of his seven catches for 165 yards against the Bears at Tillman’s expense last Nov. 20 at Soldier Field.

That’s not to denigrate Tillman, who rightfully earned the NFC Defensive Player of the Month Award for October, just as he earned the NFC Defensive Player of the Week Award the week before that. Can he trade them in for the Pro Bowl selections he missed out on in 2005 and 2006?

The point is, with defensive players, even Pro Bowl cornerbacks, it comes and goes in the NFL. Tillman is smarter and more experienced than when he started his NFL career in 2003. But it’s not like he’s transformed himself into a Pro Bowler. He was nearly this good when he stole a touchdown from Randy Moss in the end zone as a rookie — and certainly as good as when he was in his prime in 2005 and 2006.

But the fact of the matter is that Tillman and Tim Jennings, in the midst of ‘‘career’’ years, are always a week away from a Vincent Jackson nightmare. Because as well as the Bears’ defense is playing, one thing has not changed: It all starts up front.

The most valuable players on the defense are Rod Marinelli’s ‘‘rush men,’’ particularly defensive tackles Henry Melton and Stephen Paea. The consistent push the Bears are getting up front makes any defense go, of course. But it’s especially crucial to the cover-2. Six touchdowns on interceptions is a bit fluky. But it’s not like the Bears are doing it with mirrors.

On the contrary, with Melton and Paea up front — ably supported by Amobi Okoye, Matt Toeaina and Nate Collins — this team might have more staying power than any team in Lovie Smith’s tenure as head coach.

As the Minnesota Vikings are finding out, even the greatest defensive end in the league can be taken out of a game if you try hard enough. But it’s really tough to chip a defensive tackle.

The biggest threat to the Bears’ defense is injury. In 2006, the Bears had the best defense in the NFL. When safety Mike Brown was lost for the season in Week 6, the defense took a hit. But when Tommie Harris was injured in Week 12 and tackle Tank Johnson was suspended in Week 15, the dropoff was undeniably steep. A defense that was giving up 162 passing yards a game allowed 332 to the St. Louis Rams and 300 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bears reached the Super Bowl, but their best defense since the Ditka era was never the same.

Until now.

The Bears’ defense is second in the NFL in points allowed (12.3 per game). When you add their 41 points scored, they’ve allowed a net of 45 points (6.4 per game) — the best in the league.

Whether or not they can keep up that pace, everything hinges on their health — especially up front. Henry Melton isn’t Tommie Harris. But a piece of Tillman’s Player of the Month Award belongs on his mantel.

‘‘I feel great,’’ Melton said Friday. ‘‘I’m just following what the veterans do and trying to keep my body right. A lot of maintenance — a couple of massages a week. Working out. Icing down. Little things that hopefully will give you an edge.’’



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