(MCT) — CHICAGO — If back-to-back defensive player of the month awards for Bears cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings don’t prompt you to consider where they stack up among top pairs in the NFL, nothing will.
With the Bears 6-1 as they prepare for Sunday’s meeting with the Titans in Nashville, Tenn., it’s worth wondering if a team that invests much more heavily in its front seven has the best two cornerbacks in the NFL.
Eight interceptions, three touchdowns, 26 passes broken up and three forced fumbles puts the duo smack dab in the middle of the conversation, that is for sure.
Tillman was named NFC Defensive Player of the Month for October on Thursday, a fitting honor after he helped shut down the Lions’ Calvin Johnson and returned two interceptions for scores during four victories in the month. Jennings received the monthly honor in September when he had four of his NFL-high six interceptions.
“Tell me two corners who have put together two months like (that),” Bears coach Lovie Smith said. “Tell me.”
It’s an interesting topic because typically cornerbacks in Cover-2 defenses aren’t considered elite. That doesn’t mean they are not good players but the defense calls for physical performers who can hold up against the run like Tillman and Jennings do.
Cover-2 corners are not typically playing press man coverage, the kind of aggressive, in-your-face play that sets apart elite cover men like Darrelle Revis and Champ Bailey. Yes, the Bears play man-to-man defense but they make a living in zone coverages that Tillman and Jennings know so well it has become instinctive. They are a perfect fit for the scheme and they’ve been uncannily opportunistic.
If Revis wasn’t lost to a torn ACL in his left knee in September, there wouldn’t be a question about the best pair in the league because Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie is another talented cover man. But watching Cromartie attempt to tackle at times can be laughable. Tillman and Jennings will take on running backs in the open field.
Tillman, 31, made his first Pro Bowl last season. He was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week after helping limit Johnson to three catches for 34 yards in a “Monday Night Football” triumph.
“I don’t think recognition makes me a better player,” Tillman said. “I’ve been doing what I have been doing for a long time. People are just probably starting to figure it out? ... The only thing that really matters is what the coaches, organization and teammates feel.”
Tillman believes he and Jennings could prove to be the best pair in the league. The opponents’ passer rating against the Bears is 62.0 — making them more than 10 points better than the next team. Opponents are averaging 5.87 yards per pass attempt, third-lowest in the league. It’s all a function of the pass rush, the coverage and help from the safeties.
“I definitely think there is some room for improvement with myself and Tim,” he said. “You don’t get any awards for halfway through the season being the best cornerback tandem. We’ve got to keep making plays, covering receivers, creating turnovers, getting our offense some good field position, scoring.”
Tillman and Jennings seem always to be around the ball. They know the defense so well they have a feel for when they can jump routes and take chances. They have displayed great hands.
The Bears will see some strong pass defenses in coming weeks. The Seahawks’ physical tandem of Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner will be a challenge for Jay Cutler and his receivers. The Texans’ combination of Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson is excellent as is that of the 49ers, Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown. So, by the end of the season, Tillman and Jennings ought to have a good idea how they stack up.
“Everybody is starting to see it,” defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. “Our two corners are special to me, not just catching, tackling, competitive guys.”