By Laurence Holmes-
LAKE FOREST, Ill. (WSCR) — Call it the “church of the takeaway” because Bears coaches preach about the importance of winning the turnover battle.
There’s statistical analysis behind it. Lovie Smith and the Bears have researched it and found that teams that are a +2 in the turnover battle win their games 90 percent of the time. Last season the four teams that were a +10 on the season: Patriots (+28), Steelers (+17), Falcons (+14) & Packers (+10) all made the playoffs and were a combined 49-15 in the regular season with Green Bay and Pittsburgh meeting in the Superbowl. So there is evidence to match the dogma.
For the Bears, there isn’t a more ardent disciple of the “church of takeaway” than Charles Tillman. Since coming into the league in 2003, no other cornerback in the NFL has more forced fumbles than Tillman (25). After Sunday’s game, Tillman has 18 forced fumbles in his last 62 games.
“I guess that’s cool,” Tillman begrudgingly told me. “I don’t want to hear about my stats when I’m playing. I want to hear about them when I’m old. I want to hear about them when I’m retired.”
But the truth can’t be denied. Tillman has the ability to change the momentum of the game by poking the ball away. Even his teammates are amazed by it.
“It’s unbelievable. He does it all the time. He doesn’t even hit the ball hard, it’s like he barely hits it and the ball comes out. I don’t know how he does it. He gets to the right spot on the ball every time and it pops out,” Brian Urlacher said.
The concept of taking the ball away is engrained in players’ heads the first time they step on the field for Smith. Defensive players are taught to pick the ball up even after incompletions. They’re taught if the ball looks vulnerable, that they should make a play on it. Since 2004, the Bears have had the most takeaways of any team in the NFL (101).
“They preach it. It’s like religion, turnovers. I try not to let those guys down. I think highly of them. If Coach Marinelli says ‘go get that damn ball’, I’m gonna break my back to get it for him,” Tillman said.
Usually the rule is that the first defender on the team should secure the tackle and that the second player should go in for the strip. For Tillman, the Bears allow him to make the judgement because he has such a wonderful track record of taking the ball away while he’s securing a tackle.
“We’ve been with Charles for eight years of seeing him do that. We preach it and every coach in the league knows how to teach taking the ball away, but to see a guy do it over and over just says an awful lot about him,” Smith said.
The Bears hope that younger defensive players look at what Tillman has been able to accomplish and try to emulate it.
“Once you see one guy do it, guys catch on to that. We’re a young football team in a lot of ways. We want them to see and just keep looking at how Charles gets the ball out,” Smith said.
So how does Tillman do it? No one really knows.
“We all think about it. We try to rip it out. We try to punch it and he just does this (flicks his hand) and gets it out. I don’t know how he does it, but he gets it done. The guy is one of the all-time greats at doing that at corner or any position I think. When a guy catches the ball, you better put it away around him,” Urlacher said.
Even Tillman is sometimes at a loss to explain it.
“I don’t know… I really don’t know. I guess it’s just a knack,” Tillman said.
Tillman employs ripping, stripping and punching the ball out. His ability to do it has a big mental component to it as well. He’s bought into the idea. He prays at the altar of the turnover. He works at it, looking for any chance in practice to perfect technique. That hard work hasn’t escaped Smith who has high praise for what Tillman has accomplished.
“No one does it like he does it,” Smith said.
For more Bears coverage throughout the season, follow Laurence on Twitter (@LHolmes670) and listen to his radio show weeknights at 6 p.m. on 670 The Score.