The first several weeks of the season all everyone could talk about was the incredible play of the Texan's JJ Watt. In terms of getting pressure from the 3-4 DE spot, and tipping passes, Watt is in a league of his own. His incredibly displays week in and week out had many pegging him as a shoe-in for defensive player of the year, and possibly even MVP.
However, the Bear's Charles Tillman has inserted himself into the debate recently with an equally impressive performances from the cornerback position. In his last 5 games he has racked up 5 pass deflections, 2 interceptions (both returned for touchdowns), and an incredible 6 forced fumbles, including 4 last week against the Titans. All told, Tillman has 7 forced fumbles halfway through the season, which is 3 more than any other player.
What's impressive about both of these players is that they are doing things that players at their position are not supposed to do. A defensive lineman like Watt is not supposed to have more passes tipped than any cornerback in the league. And the 3-4 defensive end is supposed to be not much more than a guy who takes up space, whereas Watt has emerged as one of the most dangerous pass rushers in the league, leading the NFL in sacks with 10.5.
On the other hand, cornerbacks are not supposed to force fumbles the way Charles Tillman has been forcing fumbles. Outside pass rushers are generally the ones who force the most fumbles because they get to hit the quarterback when he's not looking. Generally, corners are tackling receivers or running backs who get to see the corner coming and can protect the ball accordingly. This makes Tillman's feat all the more impressive and all the more demoralizing for opposing teams who often have receiver or running back gain yardage, only to have the ball stripped by Tillman.
So which player's performance is more impressive? After a very hot start, teams have had time to adjust to Watt, but Watt has continued to play well, even though the hype surrounding him has died down a little. Tillman got some recognition after back to back games with a pick six, but he has only really gotten serious attention after his last game. Tillman has always been good at forcing fumbles, but now every team that faces him will make it a huge priority to cover up the ball. It will be interesting to see if Tillman can keep up his incredible rate of forcing turnovers for the rest of the season.
The other factor is the rest of the team's defense. While Houston possessed a very well rounded defense last year, with the loss of Mario Williams, Demeco Ryan and the injury of Brian Cushing to go Jonathan Joseph have a down year, this year the defense completely revolves around Watt. While Tillman has been the best player on the Chicago Bear defense, there have been other great performers this year from guys like Henry Melton and Tim Jennings, and they still have household names like Urlacher, Peppers and Briggs.
Because of all this, I say that JJ Watt remains the frontrunner for now. But I also say that Charles Tillman's week 9 performance was the best defense performance of the year, and if he keeps forcing turnovers, he could move ahead of Watt. Both players get a chance to make their case on a national stage this Sunday when the Bears and the Texans face off on Sunday night football.