Tillman eager for first NFL start

Updated: October 2, 2003, 10:46 AM ET
ESPN

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- When Chicago Bears cornerback Charles Tillman heard one of the coaches wanted to see him, the rookie was sure he was in trouble.

"I was like, `Ohhh, what did I do? I did something wrong," Tillman said.

Actually, he's been doing a lot right lately. So much so that, three games into his NFL career, Tillman has earned himself a start. That's why defensive backs coach Vance Bedford wanted to chat with Tillman before practice Wednesday -- to tell him he'd be starting Sunday against the Oakland Raiders.

It's a huge honor for the rookie. And an equally huge challenge.

"It's Tim Brown and Jerry Rice, it doesn't get any better than that," Tillman said. "It's the NFL, the best in the world. That's what I should expect. That's why I'm here, to go against the best."

Hillman was a second-round pick out of Louisiana-Lafayette, where he had 12 career interceptions and six fumble recoveries. Defensive coordinator Greg Blache said earlier this year that he could see Tillman starting some time this season. Most, including Tillman, figured it would be later in the season.

But at 0-3, the Bears are struggling on defense -- and everywhere else, for that matter -- and Blache and coach Dick Jauron are trying to shake things up. Jerry Azumah has struggled in his role as the starting right corner, and Blache and Jauron like what they've seen so far from Tillman.

"He's a kid we think may be a playmaker, and what we're trying to do is get more guys that can make plays on the field," Blache said of Tillman. "Everybody makes mistakes. The problem we have is our margin of error is so small that when we make a mistake, it's devastating, because we can't overcome it because we don't make the (big) plays.

"Two years ago we made as many, probably more mistakes," Blache added. "We were intercepting balls. We were recovering fumbles. We were scoring touchdowns on defense. We were doing things to overcome our mistakes. Right now we aren't."

Jauron also said that rookie linebacker Lance Briggs will replace Bryan Knight in the starting lineup Sunday.

"We're a football team that's 0-3," Blache said of the changes. "You say, `OK, why is it? What's missing.' Sometimes it isn't always a conventional thing. Sometimes the answer is not going to be so obvious it lands on your face. Sometimes you just need to shake the box up."

Azumah played well as Walt Harris' backup his first three seasons, recording two interceptions, two forced fumbles and 15 deflected passes. Those numbers, and the ease with which Azumah made the transition from college running back to NFL corner, convinced the Bears to let Harris go after the 2001 season.

But Azumah hasn't fared as well as a starter. Though he had his first career sack last season, he didn't have an interception and was beaten on some big plays.

He didn't have a good showing in Monday night's 38-23 loss to Green Bay, either. The game wasn't even three minutes old when Ahman Green faked left on Azumah, juked right and sprinted 60 yards for Green Bay's first touchdown.

Blache defended Azumah, saying he's done a solid job. But he also conceded that Azumah might be one of those players who is better off the bench.

"He may be better playing in a role as opposed to being structured as a starter," Blache said. "He had a great preseason this year, and then came into the first three games and had some inconsistencies. Actually, he didn't play poorly. (Tillman) played better."

Rice was one of Tillman's idols growing up. He didn't have posters of the receiver on his walls or any of his jerseys, but he had several of Rice's football cards.

But Tillman has learned quickly that he can't be intimated by who he sees across the field. The first game, he had to defend Terrell Owens. The second week, it was Randy Moss.

Now it's Rice.

"I've just got to do my job," Tillman said. "I know he's a future Hall of Famer. Just because he's a future Hall of Famer doesn't mean you should let him catch the ball. I have a job just like he has a job, and we're just going to be out there battling for it."

Game notes
Anthony Thomas didn't practice because of a bruised shoulder, but Jauron said he expects the running back to return Thursday. ... The Bears waived injured linebacker Bobbie Howard and signed Hunter Hillenmeyer off the practice roster.

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