On the Ball

Lake Forest - Since taking the job as head coach of the Chicago Bears, Lovie Smith has stressed turnovers. The Bears defense is among the best in the league at taking the ball away and tops in the NFC with 16 interceptions.

The Bears have forced 22 turnovers, which is tied for the fifth highest total. The bulk of the takeaways have come from the secondary.

The unit stepped up against the Panthers, as Nathan Vasher's two interceptions helped the Bears to an early lead and a 13-3 victory over the visitors from the south.

Vasher is tied with Deltha O'Neal for the NFL lead with six interceptions. Since being drafted by the Bears in the fourth round of the 2004 draft, he has 11 picks in 26 career games. His knack for coming up with the ball is more than luck.

"First you have to get into position to make plays," Smith said. "Every time he's in position to make a play he's made it. He has excellent hands, great hand-eye coordination. He has good instinct to go to the football. He's a playmaker. He's an interceptor.

"If you talk about the top defensive backs playing in the league right now you have to put him up there with what he's done. He's just having an outstanding season in his second year."

While Vasher will get Pro Bowl consideration, he's not a one-man show. CB Charles Tillman and S Mike Brown each have three interceptions.

"You know, this isn't something that I was surprised at," Tillman said. "We've been playing this way pretty much all year. It's jut that it is getting noticed by more people right now."

Smith has also emphasized that once a defender has the ball in his hands they turn into a ball carrier.

"The goal isn't just to stop them and line up the next play. It's not just to get the turnover and give it to the offense," Smith said. "The goal is stop them, get a turnover and score that play."

The defense set a franchise record by scoring six times last year. Although the unit has just two touchdowns this season, the Bears are averaging 22.5 yards per interception return.

A shortened field is huge for an offense that's averaging just 15.6 points per game.

Despite the gaudy numbers being put up by the secondary, the defensive line deserves a lot of the credit for forcing opposing quarterbacks into poor decisions.

"Our D-line, when they play great, our defense is unstoppable," Brown said.

The front four has been so effective of late that defensive coordinator Ron Rivera hasn't had to use many blitz packages. Unable to block the d-line one-on-one forced, the Panthers were forced to protect Jake Delhomme with seven and eight blockers, which allowed the defense to cover two or three receivers with seven defenders.

"This is something I believe we can build on," Tillman said. "If you go back and compare the stats from week to week, you'll notice that everybody is improving at every position. It's a good way to chart the progress of this team. Even if we had those early loses, we took what we could from our mistakes and learned from them. That's one reason we are playing at such a high level now."

Tillman also credits Rivera for being able to focus the defense on the task at hand rather than getting caught up in outside distractions.

"He was a player and he understands the dynamics at work here," Tillman said. "We always knew what we were capable of domination, we just couldn't convince anybody else. Ron helped us channel that frustration, in a way, that has made us closer as a unit. It was as if we knew a secret nobody else had discovered. Mainly, that we were good. Now the defense is ranked way up there. Finally, we're getting noticed. Any respect we are getting now is, in my mind, long overdue."

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