Under coach Lovie Smith, the Chicago Bears defensive line has always been built on speed and quickness, rather than size and strength. In Smith's system, defensive linemen are tasked with shooting the gaps and penetrating into the backfield. A lumbering, 330-pound nose tackle has no place in Chicago's Cover 2.
It's the reason the Bears appointed second-year defensive lineman Stephen Paea, all 298 pounds of him, as the club's starting nose tackle this season.
"We don't have 300-pound defensive linemen, so [Smith] wants us to be active and run to the football and to the quarterback," said Paea.
Paea, a second-round selection of the 2011 draft, has amazing upper-body strength. He set the bench press record at the NFL Scouting Combine last year (49 reps). His squat frame and thick legs, combined with his raw power, allows him to be extremely explosive off the ball.
Against the run, he's very hard to move, as he's very good at gaining leverage on blockers. As a result, the team felt comfortable handing him the nose tackle gig over Matt Toeaina, the starter there the past two seasons. In fact, the coaches are so confident in Paea that they've de-activated Toeaina three times this year on game days.
DT Stephen paea
Yet Paea has the quickness to slide into the under tackle position as well, giving the coaching staff flexibility in formation, alignment and play calling.
"All seven guys we dress have that same skill set that can [play multiple positions]," said Smith. "We can do it with Shea [McClellin], but [Julius] Peppers can do it, Henry [Melton] can, Izzy [Idonije], you can go down the line, really, with the players that we have. Even an inside guy, a player like Stephen Paea, can really move around."
As a result of Paea's versatility, the team has activated only seven defensive linemen in every game this season – last year, they had eight active in almost every contest. Paea has shifted back and forth between the nose tackle and 3-technique positions, while Peppers and Idonije have rotated inside on passing downs, which gives McClellin and Corey Wootton extra opportunities to rush the passer off the edge.
The coaching staff has even gone so far as to deploy a formation with just three defensive linemen, with McCellin acting as a standup rover. This type of creativity has not been commonplace in Chicago. In fact, most consider the Bears' defensive schemes to be rather vanilla. Yet in 2012, the ability of guys like Paea to slide around has offered them the opportunity to line up in different sets to keep opposing offenses on their toes.
"It's what we sign up for, it's what we get paid for. You might as well do your best," said Paea. "It's not like [defensive coordinator Rod] Marinelli is going to come to me and say 'Hey Stephen, you're going to play linebacker today.' It's not going to happen, so you've just got to put your hand down. We are the front line of the defense, and it starts with the defensive linemen."
So far, the results have been fantastic – Chicago's defense leads the league in sacks (18.0) through five weeks. Melton leads the team with 4.5 sacks, second most amongst NFL defensive tackles. He credits Paea's presence inside with helping him to be successful this season.
"Paea is just a beast in there," said Melton. "Sometimes the center wants to slide back and help on me and he demands that it takes two. It's definitely been good to have him there."
The constant pressure up front has led to a number of hurried throws by opposing quarterbacks, leading to turnovers. The Bears currently rank first in the NFL in interceptions (13) and takeaways (17).
Paea has only registered 0.5 sacks so far but even though he doesn't fill the stat sheet, his play along the interior of the defensive line has been invaluable this year. He commands attention on run plays, often resulting in a double team, which opens up room for the linebackers to make plays. The Bears' defense is ranked second in the league in opposing rush yards per game (65.8) and Paea deserves much of that credit.
"Every player on our defense is responsible for one gap, that's why they call it the one-gap defense," Paea said. "We just run after the ball after that. So if we just play our responsibilities right, and do things like that, we'll be fine."
According to Pro Football Focus, Paea has the highest overall grade amongst the team's defensive tackles, and also has the most QB hurries (6) – 12th most in the league at his position. That's not too bad for a nose tackle. His ability as both a run stopper and pass rusher is what has made Toeaina, a throwback nose tackle, dispensable.
It's safe to say that if Paea continues to develop at his current pace, trips to the Pro Bowl will be in his future and Chicago's defense will continue to thrive.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.