It is Nov. 2, a Friday afternoon, and though practice is over, Charles Tillman is working on his footwork. Nearly all his teammates are off the field and already inside Halas Hall, but Tillman is jogging baby steps in figure eights, right-forward-left-back-right-back-left-forward. He's got to get better. He knows this. This is him getting better.
Thankfully it's Friday, so he's sharp. In his own estimation, he "sucks" in practice early in the week. The coaches trick the defense with play design and new alignments, Tillman explains, and he gets tricked. He misreads routes. He loses.
Then he watches film. He learns from his mistakes. He returns the next day and does it all again. Slowly, steadily, he wins.
Winning means execution. And execution requires preparation. Matter of factly, one by one, Tillman ticks down his list of physical preparations. "Footwork," he says, having finally come off the practice field. "Making sure I have the proper eye placement when tracking the ball. Making sure I have the proper hand placement when I'm getting ready to jam somebody. Just little things."
Like what else?
"I'd say footwork and the little things of every defense," he says. "Running to the ball. That's one thing that doesn't take talent. Running to the ball and outplaying somebody. Or outworking somebody. You don't need talent for that."
Tillman and teammate Tim Jennings are garnering attention as arguably the best cornerback tandem in the NFL. Tillman leads the league with seven forced fumbles; Jennings tops the NFL with six interceptions. What does Tillman learn from Jennings?
"I would say footwork," Tillman says. "I wish I had the footwork that he had. His feet, they're so quick. He's a smaller guy, and actually smaller guys are quicker, so I'm always trying to mimic his footwork, trying to get my feet as quick as his."
Nowhere in any of this does Tillman mention the trait for which he has become famous, his trademark ball punch, a skill he used like a fumble-forcing sensei Sunday during the Bears' 51-20 deconstruction of the Tennessee Titans.
That's because to him, forced fumbles are neither an accident nor a mystery. He has no magic formula, nor is he ever surprised by the results of his flying fists.
"It's always on my mind," he told the media after forcing a career-high four fumbles against Tennessee. "I am very conscious of it. I speak it. I believe it. I practice it. It happens."
Again and again throughout his career, Tillman has attacked ball carriers, wrapping up for the tackle with one arm and both shoulders while one of his fists pounds at the football. Tillman rarely creates the bone-rattling hits that teammates Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs use to intimidate offensive players, so his ability to punch the ball free is its own brand of intimidation.
It's a skill he used to force two fumbles from Titans All Pro running back Chris Johnson on Sunday, and to knock loose a potential touchdown pass the week before intended for Detroit All Pro receiver Calvin Johnson.
But the ball punch is merely one of his talents. Calvin Johnson was targeted for 11 passes and caught only three. Most were not disrupted by a well-timed ball punch, but simply from Tillman playing intelligent, physical defense and putting his body in position to defend the taller, bulkier Johnson.
Of course it all stems from footwork, a result of Tillman's relentless desire to "always be peaking." That's another word that comes up a lot with Tillman. We want to keep peaking, he says again and again. Once you think you've made it, that's when you've failed.
And just as Tillman's knack for the strip is "contagious" (his teammates regularly talk about the cumulative psychological effects of being around him in practice as he forces fumbles week after week), his passion for turning positive imagery into production rubs off, too.
"I was so happy for him," Tillman said after the Titans game about Urlacher and his 46-yard interception return for a touchdown. "He said [before the game], 'It would be nice to get a touchdown.' I said, 'Hey, call it, man. The tongue has the power of life and death. Call it, say it, speak it, believe it.' He did and he got in the end zone."
Tillman went on to calmly describe Urlacher's weaving, tumbling touchdown run. To Tillman, Urlacher's score was simply the result of faith and preparation meeting opportunity and execution.
That, and some damn fine footwork.
Special contributor Jack M Silverstein covers the Bears for RedEye. Say hey @readjack.
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