LAKE FOREST – In a tongue-in-cheek exhibit of selflessness, Bears cornerback Tim Jennings volunteered a teammate to defend one of the NFL’s best wide receivers.
Sure, Jennings could have offered to take the job of lining up across from Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson on Monday. But why hog the spotlight?
“We’ve got a guy named Charles Tillman – No. 33,” Jennings said with a wry smile this week at Halas Hall. “He’s a Pro Bowl corner. We’re going to try to match up good with his size and everything and kind of let those guys go after it.”
They’ll go after it, all right.
Johnson and Tillman have battled each other every season since 2007, when the Lions selected Johnson out of Georgia Tech with the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft. They will square off again Monday at Soldier Field as the Bears (4-1) host the Lions (2-3).
If the one-on-one matchup were a boxing match, it would be entering Round 10 with no clear winner. Johnson has averaged five catches for 77.2 yards per game in nine contests against the Bears, including two games with at least 130 receiving yards and three games with less than 50 receiving yards.
Asked for a one-word scouting report on Johnson, Tillman did not hesitate.
“Greatness,” Tillman said.
If Tillman is anything less than great, the Bears could be in trouble.
Johnson has averaged 111.6 receiving yards per game in 2012, which trails only Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne (118.6 yards per game) entering Week 7. Twenty-six of Johnson’s 35 receptions this season have produced a first down.
Part of what makes Johnson so dangerous is his size: 6-foot-5, 236 pounds. Add Johnson’s excellent leaping ability and top-tier speed (he was clocked at 4.36 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the 2007 NFL Combine), and at times he is impossible to defend.
Tillman knows that he will need to have a short memory if Johnson beats him on a play.
“I know going into the game, he’ll win some, I’ll win some,” Tillman said. “The goal is just to try to win more individual plays than he does.”
Tillman has won plenty of plays throughout his 10-year career. Although he is shorter and lighter than Johnson at 6-foot-2 and 198 pounds, he earned a selection to the Pro Bowl last season because of his physical style of play and his propensity for takeaways.
In 135 career games, Tillman has tallied 32 interceptions and 30 forced fumbles. According to STATS Inc., the only other player to earn a spot in the “30-30” club during the past two decades is former Philadelphia Eagles safety Brian Dawkins.
To limit Johnson, Tillman will have to be aggressive from whistle to whistle.
“Just compete,” Tillman said. “That’s the only thing I can really say is just compete.
“Because he is a fierce competitor. When the ball is in the air, he feels that it’s his. And our motto around here is, ‘When the ball is in the air, it’s free.’ You’ve got to go compete for it.
“It’s a battle. He knows it. I know it. But it’s good competition. I think it’s great for the game. It’s great for our rival. I’m excited about it.”