The Chicago Bears had some question marks in their secondary when the season started. It turns out they had some answers, too.
With the defensive line applying the pressure up front and the guys in the backfield letting little get past them, the Bears lead the NFC North at 6-1.
They keep coming up with big plays. They keep getting recognized for it, too, with Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Tillman being selected NFC Defensive Player of the Month for October.
All he did was return two interceptions for touchdowns, limit Detroit's Calvin Johnson to just three catches for 34 yards and help hold opposing quarterbacks to a league-low 61.9 passer rating while the Bears went 4-0. A month earlier, Bears cornerback Tim Jennings got the recognition.
"It's exciting," linebacker Lance Briggs said Thursday. "It's exciting for all of us when our defensive backfield are playing well. Our men up front are playing well. A lot of teams have to beware no matter what set of defensive linemen we have in. If the ball gets set a little high, if you slip on a route, you know that our guys are going to be in a position to make a play."
The Bears have been making plenty this season.
They're tied with the New York Giants for the NFL lead with 16 interceptions even though they've played one less game and have returned a club-record six for touchdowns.
While the defense keeps racking up points, it's not giving up many. The Bears are allowing 14.3 per game — second lowest in the league — and are second in takeaways with 23.
But they're not just making plays. They're doing it at big moments.
"Success is at an all-time high because we're comfortable back there," Jennings said. "We know each other's style of play. You can't say too much about Peanut (Tillman); you know what he's going to give you every Sunday. And with the young group of safeties that we have, I'm very comfortable with them just from the fact that I know their abilities."
Jennings, the league leader with six interceptions, joined the points parade with a key pick last week in a 23-22 win over Carolina. That happened right after Jay Cutler connected with Kellen Davis on a touchdown in the fourth quarter, cutting a 12-point deficit to five.
On the Panthers' next play from scrimmage, Steve Smith slipped running an out pattern and the ball went right to Jennings. He returned his second interception of the game 25 yards for a touchdown, giving Chicago a short-lived lead in a game they ultimately won on a field goal as time expired.
It was just another quick strike by the defense at a key moment.
Against St. Louis on Sept. 23, Major Wright delivered the knockout blow in the fourth when he returned an interception 45 yards for a touchdown on a pass that Jennings deflected.
The next two games against Dallas and Jacksonville, Tillman and Briggs returned interceptions for touchdowns, making them the first duo in league history to do that.
"I think sometimes it's just your year," cornerback D.J. Moore said. "It doesn't happen like this every year. ... You've just got to do what Coach tells you to do, be in the right position. Plays happen for you. It's a skill league, but there's a lot of luck into it. Sometimes, you're just in the right spot at the right time."
Takeaways have been a big point of emphasis for Chicago ever since coach Lovie Smith took over in 2004, but veteran linebacker Brian Urlacher can't remember a year like this.
"We just make big plays at good times," he said.
Urlacher credits the defensive line for creating the pressure, but the secondary sure is doing its part despite some question marks.
Tillman was coming off his first Pro Bowl season but is also in his 10th year in the league. So there were concerns about his age.
Jennings had trouble hanging onto the ball in the past, but now they just might be the league's most effective cornerback duo.
"I don't know," Tillman said. "We're only halfway through the season, and I definitely think there's room for improvement, not only with myself but with Tim. The sky's the limit. I definitely think we can. But you don't get any awards for halfway through the season, for being the best cornerback tandem.
"I definitely think there's potential for that. We just got to keep doing what we've been doing, making plays, covering receivers, creating turnovers, getting our offenses some good field position and scoring."
Notes: The Bears held OT Jonathan Scott out of practice because of a groin injury, while DE Julius Pepper and Urlacher were coach's decisions. Briggs (toe) was a limited participant, and TE Matt Spaeth (ankle) was a full participant after being limited the previous day.
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