The Bears hope to have all four of their Pro Bowl defensive players suited up for Sunday’s do-or-die finale, and they may need all of them to contain Lions record-setting wide receiver Calvin Johnson.
Defensive end Julius Peppers obviously is fine based on his 3-sack game last week, and NFL interception leader Tim Jennings returned last week after missing two games with a separated shoulder.
But defensive tackle Henry Melton (clavicle) and cornerback Charles Tillman (ribs/elbow) were limited at Thursday’s practice.
Both are integral ingredients for a defense facing a throw-it-all-over-the-yard team like the Lions. Detroit has launched 698 passes, more than any other NFL team.
Johnson already has 117 receptions for 1,892 yards, and last week he zipped past Jerry Rice’s record of 1,848 receiving yards in a season.
Now he needs 108 yards to become the first 2,000-yard receiver, and with nothing else to play for, the Lions (4-11) will do everything they can to help Johnson make history.
But no one plays “Megatron” any tougher than Tillman, who helped limit him to 3 catches for 34 yards in Game 6. He has averaged 145 yards per game since.
It took Tillman nine years in the NFL before he made it to the Pro Bowl, but now he has made it for the second straight season.
“Just big play after big play,” coach Lovie Smith said. “I couldn’t tell you how valuable he is to our team and what he’s done (even though) he’s getting older. I keep hearing about how old he is, the over-the-hill gang and all of that, but he’s had another career year is what it is.”
Tillman has returned each of his 3 interceptions this season for touchdowns, and he has forced an NFL-best 10 fumbles with his unparalleled knack for stripping the ball from receivers and runners.
“Peanut, obviously, is really revolutionizing the game the way he plays it,” Bears linebacker Lance Briggs said of Tillman. “I know there are a lot of high school and Pee-Wee coaches that are changing the way they coach defense because of him.”
In 16 games against the Lions, Tillman has 5 interceptions and 3 forced fumbles.
“He’s off the charts,” defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. “I’ve said that now for three years. There’s nobody in the history of the league who can pull the ball out like he does. Nobody.
“Then to add his toughness, and he can play man-to-man and reroute (receivers); all the things we’re asking him to do. He’s really a take-away machine. He’s special.”
Melton has missed the past two games, but his pass-rush presence would help the Bears pressure Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, who has thrown for 4,695 yards but also tossed 16 interceptions.
In just a few years, Melton has transformed himself from a college running back to an elite interior lineman. Melton was drafted by the Bears as a 6-foot-3, 265-pound defensive end, but Marinelli envisioned him as an impact guy on the interior.
“His movement (skills), and he’s got so much speed, that when he got inside his instincts just go,” Marinelli said. “His instincts grew — his reaction and his speed and his quickness and balance. I just felt that over the period of time he was going to get, what I call, man strength.
“The guy is thick right now; he’s 290-plus whatever. But he can run, and the balance is excellent. When you get guys inside with that athletic ability, now your matchups are great.”
Among interior linemen, only Cincinnati’s Geno Atkins has more sacks than Melton’s 13 since 2011.
“We’ll need him,” Smith said. “Every pass rusher that we have on our team against a group like this we’ll need. Hopefully he’ll be able to go.”
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