NASHVILLE -- Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli convenes the team at meetings often to deliver the same message ad nauseam.
“Hey," he’ll say. “Let’s be special.”
Apparently Marinelli’s message resonated loudly, judging from the defense’s performance Sunday during a 51-20 thumping of the Tennessee Titans at LP Field that improved the team to 7-1. Charles Tillman forced four of the five turnovers gobbled up by the Bears, including an interception returned 46 yards for a touchdown by Brian Urlacher.
The Bears came into the game ranked No. 2 in the NFL in takeaways, but by running their total to 28 after Sunday it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them move to No. 1 going into Week 10.
“Right now, it’s contagious,” linebacker Lance Briggs said. “Guys see other guys get in the end zone, and they want to get in there too.”
Urlacher’s return gave Chicago its seventh defensive touchdown of the season, which ties for third most in NFL history in a single season. The Bears became the first team in NFL history to return seven picks for TDs in the first eight games of a season.
“The defense was (in) a frenzy out there, really taking the ball away,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said.
The unit initiated the turnover game almost immediately, too. Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck hit Kenny Britt for a 23-yard gain on the first play of the game. But as the receiver attempted to make a run after the catch, Tillman punched the ball loose with Urlacher recovering at the Tennessee 46.
“It started from the first play of the game,” Hasselbeck said. “It was a 20-yard gain, and we fumbled the ball. It wasn’t just that one. There were many others.”
With the Bears leading 14-2 on the strength of a Matt Forte 8-yard run with 3:48 left in the first quarter, the Titans took possession at their own 24. Two plays into the drive, Urlacher stepped in front of Hasselbeck’s pass intended for Damian Williams, and picked it off for the TD.
After receiving the ensuing kickoff, Tennessee coughed up the ball again -- just 10 seconds after Urlacher’s TD -- when Tillman forced a Chris Johnson fumble recovered by Chris Conte at the Titans 16. Three plays later, Jay Cutler hit Brandon Marshall for a 13-yard touchdown as the Bears took a 28-2 lead.
Interestingly, Hasselbeck said Tennessee’s coaching staff warned it all week about Tillman’s penchant for forcing turnovers, adding that “every time I’ve played the Bears, we talk about it.”
Still the Titans failed to adequately prepare.
“It has to be upsetting, yes, when you know our reputation coming in,” Smith said. “It’s not like it’s the first one we’ve done. Every team we play against, it’s a part of our mindset. Their game plan is, ‘Hey, this team will strip the ball so protect it.’ But I think it’s still hard, I mean, to have three pressure points or whatever you want to say on the ball at all times.”
Tennessee learned that the hard way. Kelvin Hayden scooped up two of the fumbles caused by Tillman, and Conte and Urlacher pounced on one apiece.
As the turnovers started to mount for the Titans, defensive tackle Henry Melton said the eyes of members of the coaching staff started to bulge.
“Today was just ridiculous,” Melton explained. “The ball was just coming out. The looks on everyone’s faces, especially the coaches, they were like, ‘What the hell is going on?”
Tillman is now responsible for forcing seven fumbles this season, running up his total to 36, which ranks as the most by a defensive back since 2003, when the cornerback entered the league. Since 1991, Tillman and Brian Dawkins are the only players to intercept at least 30 balls and force 30 fumbles, according to STATS LLC.
Urlacher said he’d “never seen anything like” what Tillman has done, while Briggs says that everyone is “seeing history being made” by the cornerback.
“This week, our whole motto was ‘Hey, let’s start fast. Defense, let’s force a turnover the first play.’ That was just the mindset coming into the game,” Tillman said.
Defensive end Israel Idonije described Sunday’s performance as one that gradually escalated as the game progressed.
“You get one (turnover) and everybody’s like ‘Good job.’ Then you get two,” Idonije said. “You get your third one, and the energy just escalates. Eventually, everyone is like, ‘Wow, this is special.’ That’s what coach (Marinelli) talks about.”