Colleague and editor Sean Tomlinson was preparing to send me an e-mail during one of the quietest performances of the season for Calvin Johnson Monday night, imploring that we analyze his absence. But prior to clicking send, Tomlinson rendered an addendum: “Of course, the moment I hit send on this e-mail Johnson will catch a 50-yard bomb.” It was only fair that he, admittedly along with me and likely the rest of the football world’s viewers, expected the NFL’s finest transformer to morph into a football-snatching monster because that’s just what Johnson does. But he was nearly silenced by Charles Tillman and his marvelous technique.
There were few opportunities for Johnson to make an impact but he — and quarterback Matthew Stafford — failed to capitalize on those opportunities.
A pivot-dig concept on the third play of the game ended in a drop and a three-and-out for the Lions offense. A second pivot-dig concept in the second half saw Johnson get open in the middle of the field, but he was overthrown by the erratic Stafford. Both of these plays came in the hole of the Bears vaunted Tampa-two scheme, where Tillman wasn’t responsible for a man. Instead he passed off Johnson after rerouting him.
As the game continued, Tillman’s technique seemed to only get better while spending more time in man coverage. A deep shot attempt in Johnson’s direction failed because of a veteran move from the 31-year old cornerback. Tillman started the play with a five-yard cushion, and he was positioned at a 45-degree angle with his eyes in the backfield, implying zone coverage. At the snap, however, he shifted outside and played man coverage, flipping his hips and running with Johnson step-for-step. The key to this coverage was how Tillman never let Johnson back on top of his route, instead staying in front of him with foot speed and a veteran move that resulted in a slight bump to knock Johnson off his track.
Later in the game, the Lions (finally) put together some successful play calls and were in a goal-to-go situation where they tried to get the ball to Johnson. ‘Twas to no avail, however, as Tillman covered him like glue in man coverage on two straight plays, one a quick slant, and another a fade. The latter was quintessential technique on the cornerback’s part, mirroring Johnson as he released to the outside and then driving through the ball upwards with a Jimmy Barry-sized fist as Johnson came down. Incomplete was the result.
Following the game, Tillman received praise from teammates, notably defensive tackle Henry Melton and middle linebacker Brian Urlacher. Urlacher told the Chicago Sun-Times’ Sean Jensen that Tillman is simply the best cornerback in the league:
‘‘If Calvin Johnson’s considered the best receiver in the game, then Charles Tillman is the best corner in the game,’’ Urlacher said. ‘‘That’s not a stretch. That’s not me being a good teammate. That’s just what it is. He is the best corner in the league.
‘‘He does everything. He picks the ball. He forces fumbles. He takes the best receiver every week, and look at what he does.’’
It’s certainly debatable if Tillman is indeed the best in the league, as there are a few other cornerbacks worthy of mention. But he’s absolutely in the conversation, and Tillman perfectly explained to Jensen why:
Tillman admitted he was ‘‘just kind of in the zone.’’ He said the key is to do the ordinary things exceptionally well, especially against a player such as Johnson.
Doing the “ordinary” well goes back to technique, an area in which Tillman excels. Whether it’s staying on top of the route and in the hip pocket of the receiver down the field or rerouting him in “cloud” coverage in the daunted Tampa-two defense, Tillman has consistently played with great technique, which is why he gave Johnson so many fits Monday Night.