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How ‘green’ Peanut changed the Panthers’ defense

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Charles Tillman knows Matt Forte has a tough decision ahead.

The Bears running back is a free agent-to-be, the same way the cornerback was last offseason and the one before that. The first year, he re-signed with the Bears for one season; the second, he went to the Panthers.

“I hope he’s at peace with the decision he makes,” Tillman said.

The cornerback certainly is, even if Super Bowl week is limited to giving pointers and cheering his teammates.

His second Super Bowl appearance is nine years has come under different circumstances. But Monday night, he had a Go Pro around his neck and a smile on his face.

A partially torn ACL limited Tillman to 12 games in his first season away from the Bears; he returned, knowing it could worsen. It did, in Week 17, and required surgery last month.

Tillman, who turns 35 later this month, said he “definitely” wants to keep playing next season.

“Right now my whole focus is just getting this knee right, just getting this ACL right,” he said. “Recovering from that first.”

Leaving the Bears after 12 seasons proved to be invigorating and “kind of weird,” even if the landing spot wasn’t so different: he knew coach Ron Rivera and had teamed with Greg Olsen and Jared Allen before.

“What have I learned? That I still love this game,” he said. :”I’m green, and I say green, meaning, I’m always willing to learn something else. I always want to learn more. And I think that’s how I view myself.

“You’re either green and growing or ripe and rotten, and I always want to stay green.”

Tillman — who had two interceptions and two forced fumbles this season — is attending every meeting this week, and said it’s been a thrill to have a front-row seat to watch his teammates in the playoffs. Sunday, he said, he’ll be a sounding board for the members of secondary who call their stretch of locker room “Thieves Ave.”

“I know our game plan, so I can sit there, help our coaches make adjustments,” he said. “Give them water, give them towels, wipe some sweat. Whatever I can do to help us win, that’s my role.”

His arrival in Carolina, his teammates swear, changed the way the Panthers play defense.

Tillman taught his trademark “Punch” and even encouraged defensive linemen to chase plays with bad intensions.

As a result, the Panthers led the NFL with 39 takeaways, one year after being tied for 10th with 26. In 2014, they forced 12 fumbles; this year, they tied for the league lead with 15.

“(Secondary coach Steve) Wilks always talked about it — ‘We’ve been trying to get people to get the ball out for the four years I’ve been here previously,’” safety Kurt Coleman said. “And now when Peanut comes, everyone wants to try to create fumbles. It’s the mindset Peanut brings to the team.”

If 33-year-old safety Roman Harper is the unit’s uncle, safety Tre Boston said, then Tillman is the grandfather.

He’s still amazed at how, after injuring his knee against the Titans, Tillman chased a speed receiver stride-for-stride in the second half.

“I couldn’t fathom what was going on,” Boston said.

Tillman returned a month later and registered an interceptions and a fumble recovery against the Giants.

“I’m excited for when he does rehab and he gets back, that he has another year in this NFL,” Coleman said.

Tillman will be a free agent again. He still keeps an eye on the Bears — including a running back who might soon he in his shoes.

“I still have friends on the team,” Tillman said. “I watch Forte and see what kind of game he had, see what he’s doing.”

Follow me on Twitter @patrickfinley

Email: pfinley@suntimes.com