SPARTANBURG, S.C. (AP) — Cornerback Charles “Peanut” Tillman has never seen a football he doesn’t think he can pry loose from a ball carrier.
One hand. Two hands. It doesn’t matter how the runner is carrying the ball, Tillman believes he has a chance to strip the ball with his “Peanut punch.”
“Get it out every time, that is my mindset,” Tillman said Thursday.
During 12 seasons with the Chicago Bears, Tillman forced 42 fumbles — more than any defensive back since the statistic started being recording in 1994, according to STATS. Only five players have more forced fumbles than Tillman. All are defensive ends.
Now he’s hoping to carry that takeaway talent with him to his new team, the Carolina Panthers.
The 34-year-old Tillman is already making an impact. He’s forced two fumbles during training camp, and now other Carolina players are wanting in on the act. Footballs seem to be flying loose on a daily basis during practices at Wofford College.
Running back Jonathan Stewart, who rarely fumbles, got stripped by Tillman and said afterward he’s still not sure how he pried it loose.
Panthers safety Roman Harper called Tillman’s ability to punch the ball out a science, one he’s perfected during his long career. Others say Tillman knows the “pressure points” where the ball can be dislodged.
Tillman downplays that, saying “it’s just a punch.”
Well, there’s a little more to it than that.
Tillman said he’ll size up a ball carrier en route to the ball, seeking out the ball when it is in a “vulnerable” position. Then he goes in for the shot.
He’s the first to admit he doesn’t always succeed, comparing himself to a boxer who isn’t going to land every punch.
“I have punched arms. I have punched helmets when guys try to cover up the ball,” Tillman said. “It’s all part of the process. … I know the more punches I throw the more likely the ball will come out.”
Sometimes Tillman has to just settle for a tackle, knowing if he goes for the punch a ball carrier can get away.
“I don’t think of myself as a big guy or possess that hard-hitting ability like a Luke Kuechly or a TD (Thomas Davis),” said the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Tillman. “I’m not real good at separating the man from the ball so I try to punch it out. I try to do something different, something unconventional. … For that split second, just take my chance, take my shot, and punch at it. Somehow, it seems to keep coming out.”
Tillman once forced four fumbles in the Bears’ 55-21 victory over the Tennessee Titans on Nov. 5, 2012.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who coached Tillman when he was the defensive coordinator in Chicago, said the veteran simply has an innate ability to know when and where to knock out the ball.
“There are points of contact where you try to hold the ball (and) no matter how you look at it, there’s always an exposed point,” Rivera said. “Charles seems to have that focus. He seems to be able to zero in on that. The nice thing is it’s spreading to a lot of our guys.’
Tillman could be a good fit in Carolina. He joins a turnover-driven defense that forced 24 fumbles last season, second most in the NFL. So while the footballs may seem to be popping out on a regular basis, Tillman refused to take credit for the balls on ground.
“It’s not me, it’s them doing it,” Tillman said. “I just tried it once and they saw it and they’re like, ‘wow it’s that easy.’ Then they tried it and they’re getting it out, too.”
Tillman said he’s more than willing to help out the team’s younger defensive backs, passing along any of his knowledge.
“I don’t want to be here if I’m keeping secrets,” Tillman said. “I’m not here to try to better myself, I’m here to better this team. We all have one common goal and that is to win a Super Bowl.”