Protecting the football Priority One

Posted Dec 1, 2012

The Seahawks know they can’t win on the road if they turn the ball over, but Sunday they’ll be facing the best team and player in the league at forcing turnovers in Charles Tillman and the Bears.

CHICAGO – Are the Seahawks on the road to turnover perdition?

The first place they need to start in finding a way to improve on their 1-5 record away from CenturyLink Field is to win the turnover battle. If coach Pete Carroll has said that once in recent weeks, he’s said it until he’s College Navy-blue in the face.

And for very good reasons. The Seahawks are minus-5 in turnover differential on the road, compared to plus-6 at home. They won at Carolina in Week 5, despite turning the ball over three times. They lost in Miami last week, despite not turning the ball over for first time in a road game. Each of the eight interceptions rookie quarterback Russell Wilson has thrown has come on the road. Three of the seven fumbles the Seahawks have lost came in road games.

Sunday at Soldier Field, they will be staring into a gnarly Bears defense that has produced a league-high 33 turnovers. So protecting the ball, while also trying to take it away, will be at an even greater premium.

“I’m all over it this week. I think everybody is,” Wilson said. “Everything that I do, I’m telling everybody ‘high and tight,’ just making sure that we’re putting the ball away. I’ve got to do a great job of it, too, and same with the rest of the guys.”

That’s especially true when the player in your way is Bears cornerback Charles Tillman. He has forced a league-high seven fumbles and also returned both of his interceptions for touchdowns. And Tillman is hardly a one-year wonder. Since entering the league in 2003, he has forced 35 fumbles, and he’s the only player in the league during his 10-season span that has 30-plus interceptions (32) and 30-plus forced fumbles.

If that doesn’t get your attention then you’re simply not paying attention.

“We show highlights every week of guys taking the ball away, and he keeps popping up because he is the best there is at doing that,” Carroll said.

But it’s not just Tillman. Cornerback Tim Jennings has a league-high eight interceptions, and five other Bears have at least two. In addition to Tillman’s feast of forced fumbles, three other Bears have at least two. That’s how you get 33 turnovers. And the Bears’ defensive players are just practicing what their coach preaches.

“If you just look at the turnover ratio and how important it is each game, you can see why we put so much of an emphasis on it,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said. “That’s just who we are. That’s the core. That’s our DNA. In the sense that you’re talking about defensive football, I just feel like it’s not a good defensive game unless we can take the ball away. We do practice it. We preach it. And guys are seeing the results of what it can do.”     

Those guys who are seeing it include the Bears’ opponents, and the Seahawks definitely have seen enough to know what they’re up against. Again, especially when the focus is Tillman.

“At the point of attack, he’s really effective,” Carroll said. “He has a great sense and savvy for making a play on the ball or attacking the ball after the rise where he gets a lot of his wins. His instincts are there. He’s got great experience working for him, as well.

“He has a varied style where he can be at the line of scrimmage, off the ball and play effectively. When they roll him up and cloud him, he knocks the crud out of guys. So he has a complete game. But best of all for him, he is an extraordinary attacker of the football.”

And that will render Wilson and anyone else who gets their hands on the ball protectors of the rock. As the Seahawks have proved all season, winning on the road is an elusive goal. When you turn the ball over, it can quickly become an unattainable goal.

Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell is well aware of that, and knows Tillman even better than the rest of the Seahawks because he was with the NFC North-rival Minnesota Vikings for five seasons before joining Carroll’s staff last year.

“Charles Tillman is the best ever at getting the ball out, and then there’s their team as a whole,” Bevell said. “That is what makes them go. It gets the energy going. It obviously gives their offense field position. So that is No. 1 for us this week, making sure we protect the ball.”

But not at all costs.

“The thing is, you can’t play scared,” Wilson said. “You’ve got to still play fast and play your game.”

And do it without turning the ball over against the team and player who are better at forcing turnovers than anyone else in the league.

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