LAKE FOREST, Ill. (AP) – Nathan Vasher’s got one eye on the receiver he’s covering. Out of the corner of the other, he’s trying to pick up the quarterback, all while back-pedaling into position or ready to make a split-second cut.

And if it happens to be in the air, there’s also a football in the middle of his concentration field.

With vision, preparation, a feel for the game and a knack for knowing where the ball is headed, Vasher has played an integral role in helping the Chicago Bears develop into the league’s top-rated defense.

The second-year defensive back has 12 interceptions in just 28 career games, including seven this season for the Bears, who take a 9-3 record into Sunday’s meeting with the Steelers.

“That’s really quick. He’s got 12 picks in two years. It takes guys a long time to get that. So yeah I think that’s pretty fast development,” said Bears defensive backs coach Perry Fewell.

“The young man is gifted. The ball finds him. He’s instinctive, he’s a very smart guy and a smart football player. And he studies the game pretty good, too.”

Vasher’s in the record books already. He caught a wind-blown missed field goal deep in the end zone against the 49ers on Nov. 13, and after a nifty spin move to reverse fields, returned the ball 108 yards for a score – the longest play in NFL history.

“I know I ran 108 yards. I knew I always had the capability. It was just having the opportunity to go out there and do it,” Vasher said.

Nicknamed “The Interceptor” by coach Lovie Smith, Vasher’s been a standout as a fourth-round pick out of Texas, working his way from nickel back as a rookie last season into the starting lineup this year.

“You have to have real good peripheral vision and real good instincts. It’s basically the same game and I’ve been doing it for a long time,” Vasher said of his easy transition.

The Bears have returned three of their 18 interceptions for touchdowns this season, including a game-winner in overtime against Detroit by Vasher’s running mate at cornerback, Charles “Peanut” Tillman. And Tillman’s longest return, a 95-yarder last week after picking off Brett Favre in the end zone, set up a field goal.

Chicago’s secondary also includes safety Mike Brown, who has the Bears’ career record with six defensive touchdowns, including a 41-yard interception return against Detroit for a score this season.

Vasher got his second TD of the season and third of his career when he intercepted Favre last week and returned it 45 yards for a clinching TD.

Vasher’s success is not just based on his physical skills. He’s learned that the pro game takes a lot of homework because there are so many talented players and an array of formations and patterns.

“It’s a combination of all of that as far as my preparation of watching teams. It takes about all week to watch the last four games and just pick up on certain stuff,” he said.

“I think if I can just pick up one or maybe two different formations or tendencies on Sunday,

“I’m ahead of the game. There is no way you can know everything they do. So try to pick up a couple of things. If I can recognize it, then I can get a jump on it.”

Smith’s teams have returned eight interceptions for touchdowns in his first two seasons and also one fumble recovery. The former Rams defensive coordinator has preached that his defense should do more than try to stop the other offense. It should also try to score.

Vasher has listened.

“First you have to get into position to make plays. Every time he’s in position to make a play, he’s made it,” Smith said of Vasher.

“He has excellent hands, great hand-eye coordination. He’s a playmaker. He’s an interceptor. All those things you say about a defensive back is what he is.”

In college, Vasher had 17 career interceptions, including seven in one season, both tying Texas records, but before there the draft, there were some questions about his size (5-foot-10, 180). He’s no doubt answered them emphatically.

Now he’s made a name for himself in the NFL and also with one of the league’s pioneer franchises. He needs three more interceptions to tie Mark Carrier’s single-season Bears mark of 10 set in 1990.

“I had no idea,” Vasher said. “If it comes within the football game, I just have to see what happens. I mean opportunities to get interceptions are slim and none, so I mean you got to make sure you take advantage of the ones you do get.”

AP-ES-12-08-05 1834EST


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