Last season, Chicago Bears defensive tackles Stephen Paea exploded out of the gates. In Week 1, he picked up a sack and had his best game of the year against the run. His stout play continued the next month until he suffered a turf toe injury in Week 4. He missed the following two weeks before returning to the field, but it was clear right away the toe injury was hampering his play.
Things snowballed as the season progressed and Paea struggled mightily down the stretch. He averaged just 20.5 snaps per game in the final month of the season, after averaging 44.2 snaps in the previous nine contests.
It was a disappointing campaign from a player who, when he's healthy, has been arguably the most consistent defensive lineman on the team the past three years.
Yet Paea said this week that he's ready to put last year behind him.
"[The toe] feels great," Paea told Bear Report during OTAs. "It is what it is, last year. That's the past. This year, I'm healthy now and getting ready to go. I'm excited."
Paea has resumed his role as the club's starting nose tackle this year but he'll be without Henry Melton, with whom he's played his entire career. Luckily for Paea, Melton's replacement is four-time Pro Bowler Jeremiah (Jay) Ratliff.
"I've learned a lot from Jay, and also Henry, but the difference is, Jay is a veteran. He's been there and done that. I mean how many Pro Bowls?" Paea said. "He's a teacher and a mentor and he's helping me out. Football-wise, I'm learning a lot from him. I'm getting better every day learning from him."
Paea will need to keep playing at a high level this season for a number of reasons, not the least of which are Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton, the club's two rookie draft picks. If Paea falters, or if the toe injury reoccurs, he could easily get the hook, especially with two hungry young guys on his heels.
Paea said he understands the situation but that it won't stop him from helping the kids grow as football players.
"There's a lot of competition, especially in the defensive line group," he said. "That's the beauty of it, coming out here and getting the chemistry going with the young guys and being a mentor for them and helping them, because I was once a young guy too."
A rebound from 2013 would also help Paea's pocketbook, as he's slated to become an unrestricted free agent following the season. At this point, he said there have been no talks about a possible contract extension.
"Not really. I haven't heard anything," he said. "I'm letting that take care of [itself]. I'm just taking care of myself, on the field and off the field, staying out of trouble."
Paea downplayed the pressure of a contract year but he does understand what's at stake this season.
"This has to be the best year of my career," he said.
To aid in that goal, the Bears brought in veteran defensive line coach Paul Pasqualoni, with whom Paea has already developed chemistry.
"He's a tough coach," said Paea. "You want to learn the game and he expects you to learn the game. He's going to make sure you get something out of it. The past few weeks that I've learned from him, I've learned a lot more now than I had the last three years."
Under the old regime, defensive linemen were expected to hit their gaps hard on every snap. Speed and explosiveness was key.
Yet under Pasqualoni, Paea said the emphasis is more about reading the offense and working together as a front seven.
"He's just putting in everything: steps, hands, eyes, where your eyes are, learning formations, all that stuff. I'm pretty much like a linebacker, playing smart on the defensive line. We don't just play gap-to-gap, 1-for-1, we're out here helping the linebackers and things like that."
It's a system Paea believes will pay big dividends and erase the sour memories of last season.
"I'm expecting great things for our defense this year."
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.