Setting the standard
Setting the standard
Bears' defense playing at Super Bowl level, offense hoping to catch up
Updated: November 4, 2012, 8:49 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- After a game that epitomized his special season, Chicago Bears cornerback Charles "Peanut" Tillman was walking into the visitors locker room as a group of military personnel stood nearby cheering him on.
Tillman jumped out of the gated path to the locker room and ran over to shake their hands.
Good thing they didn't have their rifles, or Tillman would've slapped them down and we might have had an incident. The guy can't help the way he plays. In 50 years, he'll be sitting at a pond, slapping bread crumbs from a duck's mouth.
If he's retired, that is. As Tillman ages, he has become a master of his craft. The Old Man and the Ball Punch.
Tillman forced four fumbles, three of which were recovered by the Bears, in the embarrassingly one-sided 51-20 victory over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday. He's forced seven fumbles and scored two touchdowns on interception returns this season, not to mention his shutdown coverage of Calvin Johnson. We might have to start calling him, "Mr. Peanut."
Peanut's shelling of the Titans was witnessed by a pro-Bears crowd at LP Field, as the ugly takeover of Nashville was complete. From the bars on Broadway to brunch at Vanderbilt to the actual game on the field, it was an orange-and-blue invasion all weekend. While the fans ate and partied, the Bears continued to gorge on the AFC South.
Super Bowl teams often get their share of breaks, and the Bears have certainly taken advantage of getting the AFC South as intra-division foes this year, outscoring Indianapolis, Jacksonville and Tennessee 133-44. The 51 points were the most a Bears team has scored since 1980, and they called off the dogs with 10 minutes left.
Next week, they play the only good team in that division, the Houston Texans (7-1), in the Bears' most interesting game since Green Bay in the second week of the season. The week after, it's "Monday Night Football" in San Francisco.
Given what's ahead of them, the Bears certainly didn't look past the Titans, scoring a team-record 28 points in the first quarter.
"Last week we came out pretty slow and Coach [Lovie] Smith was very adamant of us going out and getting a fast start," Tillman said. "We didn't want to have a repeat of what happened against Carolina."
While the offense couldn't put together a long drive, the defense and special teams put on a show. It was LovieBall 101: Five turnovers and two big special-teams plays.
Here's how the scoring went in the first quarter: A blocked punt by Sherrick McManis led to a Corey Wootton recovery touchdown; a 44-yard Devin Hester punt return set up Matt Forte's 8-yard run; a Brian Urlacher 46-yard interception return touchdown and a Tillman forced fumble which led to a Jay Cutler to Brandon Marshall touchdown.
It took around an hour to finish the first quarter, and by the time it was over, so was the game.It left a lot of time to think. For one, to reflect on the dominance of the Bears' defense, and really marvel at Tillman's ability to cause turnovers, which could earn the one-time Pro Bowler a defensive player of the year award. The Bears' defenders like to say, "The star of our defense is our defense," but Tillman is really standing out. Asked if this level of play -- seven defensive touchdowns in eight games -- can continue, Tillman said it could. After all, it's not magic, just preparation meeting opportunity, the sports definition of "luck."
"If we continue to practice hard, yeah, why not?" he said. "The sky's the limit. Each week we do want to get better. If we level off, we'll lower our standards. We don't want that to happen."
It's pretty clear this is a special, Super Bowl-type defense. But the last three quarters also gave one time to ponder the lack of maturation by the Bears' offense. Like why does it look like Cutler and offensive coordinator Mike Tice met for the first time 15 minutes before the game? Why does the beginning of games seem to lack any semblance of flow?
Cutler attributes that to the Bears simply feeling out the defense. I think it also has to do with Tice's inexperience putting together an offensive game plan, not to mention the occasional failings of the offensive line (J'Marcus Webb's end zone penalty resulting in a safety, Gabe Carimi's pass blocking). There is an art to crafting an offense, and the Bears are doing too much finger-painting.
But give them credit, when opportunities arose early, the Bears made quick work of them. Both offensive touchdowns in the first quarter came off Titans turnovers in their own red zone.
"Coverage-wise, we're just getting crazy stuff," Cutler said. "We don't really know what we're going to get coming into the game, so it's more of a '‘Let's go out and see what they're going to play us in' because with Brandon Marshall, Matt Forte and the other receivers, we don't know if we're going to get two[-man], if we're going to get single-high or a mixed bag. So we have to adjust a little faster. I've got to do a better job as well, adjusting and getting the ball to the appropriate guy."
Cutler wound up with pretty good numbers, 16-for-29 for 229 yards and those three touchdowns to Marshall. Cutler fumbled once, leading to a Titans field goal, and was sacked three times overall.
Cutler didn't make much of his professional regular-season return to Nashville, where he played at Vanderbilt and lives in the offseason. He has great memories of his Vanderbilt days, but really he hasn't had much success in this city. It was only his ninth win in the city, with only three of his previous eight wins, spread over four seasons as starting quarterback, coming against legitimate Division I teams.
"Yeah, it was fun just to be back in Nashville," Cutler said. "I love this city."
Cutler was at his best with 11:21 left in the fourth, when the stadium was all but cleared out of Titans fans, when he threw a beautiful 39-yard sideline bomb to Marshall into the end zone. Their third touchdown connection was a 5-yard pass a minute later. Marshall caught nine passes for 122 yards, continuing his torrid assault on the Bears' receiving record books. But if you think that wasn't good enough, you're not alone.
"Having three touchdowns is good, but I really want to get Earl Bennett going and Devin Hester going," Marshall said. "We're going to really work hard this week to get that going. Those guys work hard and they're open, but the way teams are playing us, they're just leaving a lot of opportunity for me, and being a No. 1 receiver, it feels good taking advantages like that. But I want to see those guys going a little bit."
Not just those guys. Every week we keep saying Forte should get more touches and games like this prove that he can be dangerous in small doses. He had 12 carries for 103 yards, including a 46-yard run. He also turned a screen pass into a 47-yard gain."He's an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime player," Marshall said. "That's what he's capable of doing. It's fun to watch him too."
It's fun to watch this team in general. The Bears aren't a perfect team, and that's good, because they don't want to level off midway through the season. But the offensive player quotes are pretty similar from week to week. It sounds a lot like 2006, when we waited in vain for the offense to match the defense. It's only halfway through the season, so the Bears are still in "what-if" mode.
"That's the scary part," Hester said. "We're still leaving plays out there, but we're still putting up 50-something points. That's the scary part of the situation. So when we jell and everything's clicking on offense, who knows how the ballgame is going to turn out?"
So … when is that going to happen? Does it have to happen for this team to make a Super Bowl? The good thing is the Bears have half a season to fix their mistakes. We'll get a good idea of where they stand in the second half of the season as the competition gets better. But I'll say this, the journey has been pretty fun so far.
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