Tillman critical to Bears defense

If he can't overcome knee and groin woes to help contain Lions' Johnson again, expect trouble

If the excitement of an early NFC North showdown in Detroit doesn't make Bears fans tremble, then certainly fear should do the trick.

The Lions long have been a punch line in the NFL, but these days there seems to be a grimly purposeful malice to the way they play. Forget that heads and tails stuff before the coin flip and have the referee go over the Marquess of Queensberry rules instead.

Maybe it's the untimely departure of Henry Melton from the 2013 season, Charles Tillman's abnormal gait or simply the sight of Jay Cutler dipping his precious right shoulder to lower the boom, but the perfect start to the season seems suddenly vulnerable. The Bears are dangerously thin on the defensive line, and at cornerback and quarterback in a league where starting strong is nice, but finishing strong is critical.

It's wonderful to have a winning opening quarter of the season guaranteed, but that has been standard fare since Cutler's arrival via trade from the Broncos in 2009. The Bears have been 3-1, 3-1, 2-2, 3-1 and now have a chance to be 4-0. They have made the playoffs once and won one playoff game. If anything happens to Cutler, you can expect a bleak Russian winter of a football season without the Man from Santa Claus.

That's true of any NFL team that loses its quarterback, of course, but the Bears seem to have more other black spots on the roster than most. And while few defenses can play well without a pass rush, the hunch here is that a sustained injury to Tillman would be the tipping point in the season. With third cornerback Kelvin Hayden already lost for the year to a torn hamstring, Tillman's knee and groin injuries could spell disaster.

The Bears are struggling to shut down receivers right now with Tillman playing through injuries. A.J. Green's nine catches for 162 yards with two touchdowns was the second-best individual performance in Week 1. Antonio Brown's nine catches for 196 yards with two touchdowns was the best receiving performance in Week 3. Sandwiched between the two was five catches for 84 yards for the Vikings' Greg Jennings in Week 2. In order, that's an average of 18.0, 16.8 and 21.8 yards per catch by each of the first three opponents' top receivers.

Which brings us to the crucial matchup in Sunday's game. With a nod to rookie right guard Kyle Long's confrontation with Ndamukong Suh, the crucial matchup in this game is Tillman against Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson.

"Megatron" has been unworldly against most opponents, but he has struggled more against the Bears than any team in the division in large part because Tillman has battled him to a standoff. Johnson has 53 catches for 801 yards with four touchdowns in 11 games against the Bears.

Tillman, a lanky 6-foot-2 athlete, has played in 10 of those 11 games against the 6-5, 236 speedster Johnson. He has 33 tackles with three interceptions, three forced fumbles, 15 pass breakups and two return touchdowns. Thus, he has more than held his own.

And while it may seem like Tillman has had a precarious grip on his season, he is actually ahead of his performance last year when he made the second of two straight selections to the Pro Bowl.

Tillman suffered a shin injury on special teams in the season opener a year ago and played just 13 of 66 snaps in that game, according to Pro Football Focus. He played in every snap the next two games.

He missed nine plays in the opener this year against the Bengals with illness and dehydration and played every down the next two games except 22 plays in the fourth quarter Sunday night against the Steelers.

Was he kept out in part to prepare him for another battle with Johnson? That seems to be the strategy the Lions employed when they held out Reggie Bush against the Redskins so he could be ready to go in a crucial division battle with the Bears. The Lions got some bad news when No. 2 receiver Nate Burleson broke his arm in a single-car accident early Tuesday morning, but Bush is a much more valuable to them against the Bears.

Bush effects the front seven and even safety coverage because he creates matchup concerns all over the field. His presence holds linebackers closer to the line of scrimmage with his threat to run and as a receiver he can limit safety help over the top on Johnson.

The fear with the Bears this year is that an aging defense — the league's third oldest starting unit —could break down as the year goes on and leave an improving offense to carry the team. The Bears have forced turnovers and scored defensive touchdowns, but they are allowing a lot of yards. They are 25th overall in defense against a Lions offense that is fourth.

Special contributor Mike Mulligan co-hosts "The Mully and Hanley Show" weekdays from 5-9 a.m. on WSCR-AM 670.

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