Losing Tillman wouldn't be biggest loss for Bears defense

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Chicago Tribune sports columnist Steve Rosenbloom talks about the Bears defensive end Julius Peppers. (Source: Chicago Tribune)

Coming off a game in which he forced an incredible four fumbles, Charles Tillman’s absence Sunday night against Houston would be a big loss -- bigger still considering he has forced seven fumbles in eight games and returned two interceptions for touchdowns.

Oh, and he also neutered Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson and would be required to do something similar against the Texans' Andre Johnson.

Tillman could miss the apocalyptic matchup with the Texans because his wife is due to give birth. The actual due date is Monday, but these things are as unreliable as the Bears offense.

If the baby, the Tillmans’ fourth, comes Sunday morning, he said he would play that night. Any later than that on Sunday, and he’s swapping shoulder pads for a gown and booties, leaving the league’s scariest defense with a big hole.

Thing is, Tillman’s absence wouldn’t be the biggest hole the Bears defense could face.

Julius Peppers’ absence would be.

Peppers has zero forced fumbles and interceptions -- nothing close to Tillman’s gaudy numbers even though Peppers starts each play closer to the ball.

Peppers has five sacks, less than half of Houston’s J.J. Watt.

But don’t be stupid: Everything on the Bears defense starts with Peppers.

Every smart opponent game-plans for Peppers first. Failure to do so results in pain for the quarterback. Opponents start with a double-team and sometimes that’s not enough. Asking an offensive lineman to block Peppers without help is similar to a defense that single-covers Brandon Marshall. Coaches who commit either of those crimes ought to be fired between plays.

The attention that Peppers demands feeds everything the Bears do on defense. Such as Henry Melton’s five sacks, for one thing. Such as Israel Idonije’s four, for another.

You might’ve heard the happy talk about depth along the defensive line that has given the Bears a deadly pass rush with just the front four. That starts with Peppers’ getting moved all over the line and getting double-teamed whenever opponents can find him. The fact the Bears require only four men to pressure the quarterback makes the linebackers and secondary better.

The Bears have blitzed better than ever this season, but they don’t have to blitz at all. There isn’t the urgency to send extra men and risk openings in the defense because they are getting it done up front, which allows Lovie Smith’s defense to put the desired seven men in coverage.

Quarterbacks under pressure make bad decisions. Bears defenders are in position to intercept the ball or pop it loose. The Bears lead the league in takeaways and have returned seven picks for scores, leaving the defense just four touchdowns behind Jacksonville’s offense. Connect the dots, people.

No question, the linebackers and defensive backs have been good and opportunistic. I’m taking nothing away from Tillman’s fabulous skills, Lance Briggs’ All-Pro year, Tim Jennings’ Pro-Bowl half-season, or any other player’s accomplishments.

I just believe that they’re in position to make big plays because the defensive line is hellacious, and that starts with the sure-fire Hall-of-Famer Peppers.

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