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Bears Fri Nov 02 2012
The NFL announced the Players of the Month for October yesterday, and not surprisingly selected Charles Tillman the winner in the NFC on the defensive side of the ball. According to the league, it is the first time in the award's history that it's been given to cornerbacks from the same team in consecutive months (Bears teammate Tim Jennings won it in September).
At the beginning of the 2011 season, Tillman was one of the top defenders on the Bears, but still hadn't been voted to the Pro Bowl. Jennings was fighting for a starting spot with Zack Bowman, and the coaching staff was down on him because he had difficulty finishing plays (tipping and knocking down balls Lovie Smith thought he should intercept).
Essentially, the Bears had one guy they were supremely confident in, but wasn't getting the mainstream recognition (Tillman), and another that they weren't sure was going to pan out, since he didn't with the Indianapolis Colts, previously (Jennings). Times have certainly changed.
The pair has been spectacular so far in 2012, sans some rough possessions last week from Jennings that didn't impress Steve Smith or me. So where did the extreme rise in play come from? The Bears haven't changed schemes, and it's unlikely both players drastically improved given their ages (31 for Tillman, 28 for Jennings).
The answer may actually rest in the hands of two other portions of the team: The defensive line and safeties. The Bears are getting substantially more pressure on the passer this season than in either of the past two. The defense recorded 34 sacks in 2010, 32 in 2011, and are on pace for an eye-popping 53 in 2012. You can thank the play of Corey Wooten, Shea McClellin, Henry Melton, and Israel Idonije for the large jump in that particular number. I didn't mention Julius Peppers among that group since he's always been good (Defensive Player of the Month in November 2011 and 5.5 sacks this year).
As for the last line of defense, the simple consistency of having the same two safeties behind Jennings and Tillman is a major contributing factor to their success this season. Chris Conte and Major Wright have each played the best football of their careers, and the confidence the corners have in the safeties allows for more aggressiveness on receivers and quarterbacks.
This weekend in Tennessee, all the aforementioned players will face one of the toughest opposing quarterbacks to date in Matt Hasselbeck. The name may not strike the fear into the average fan, but would it surprise you to know that he is 4-1 in his career versus the Bears? Most of the success came when he was in Seattle, but he still has some sneaky effectiveness to him, and obviously has no problem playing against the Cover 2.
Don't forget about Chris Johnson either. After a rough start to the season (following his brutal 2011 campaign), he's averaged 128 yards over the past three games, and seems to have found the burst that earned him the nickname 'CJ2K.' Oh, but did I forget to mention that Tillman, Jennings, Conte, and Wright form one of the best tackling units in the NFL? Even if Johnson gets to the second level, it's unlikely he'll make it all the way to the endzone on a long run.
With the calendar turning to November, the door of the NFC Defensive Player of the Month is once again wide open. Will another Bears player win it? I certainly wouldn't put it past the guys that have already done so, but my money would be on Lance Briggs or Peppers to put up monster games if I had to choose a player in Chicago.