The Chicago Bears defense is one of the worst in the NFL, ranking 30th overall and 32nd in points allowed.
Yet that’s not Stephen Paea’s fault. The fourth-year defensive tackle is having the best season of his career. He has 6.0 sacks, second most on the team, and will very likely be named to his first Pro Bowl when the selections are announced this evening.
It’s a big step forward for Paea, the club’s 2011 second-round draft pick who was hampered by a turf toe injury last season. During OTAs this year, Paea told me he needed to have the best season of his career. Now, more than six months later, I asked him if he feels he’s accomplished that goal.
“Personally, yeah,” he said.
Paea has easily been the club’s most consistent defender this year, which few saw coming considering the big-name players around him.
“Going into the season, I was pretty much the odd man out. I had to play up to my potential and play up to these guys,” said Paea. “I feel like I’ve done that.”
Paea credits his teammates for helping him improve, yet also strength and conditioning coach Joe Kim, who has helped him refine his hand technique.
“I’ve gotten a lot of help from Jared Allen, Jeremiah Ratliff, Willie Young, all of those guys. Those are the guys that have been the reason I’ve been successful,” Paea said. “I’ve been getting better at my pass rush, with Joe Kim. Just reps, reps, reps, just hands and all of that, things I’ve never learned in my career. Then you apply it and it works, as you see on the field. Whatever works, you have to keep doing it.”
Paea is in the final year of his rookie contract and will hit the free-agent market at the end of the season. I asked him if he’ll be a Bear next year.
“I would love to come back,” he said. “We’ve got one more game and I’ve got to stay healthy. That’s been the biggest goal of mine this year, just to stay healthy and go out there and have fun.”
The future of Chicago’s defense is far from certain, as current coordinator Mel Tucker will surely be fired next week. The incoming defensive coordinator will play a big role in personnel decisions, yet whoever takes the job, he’ll want to make sure Paea – a hybrid interior defender with quickness and immense strength – is in the fold.
With so few long-term defensive options currently on the roster, Paea is the one player the Bears cannot afford to lose. Expect the club to re-up their 26-year-old defensive tackle at some point in the next few months.
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.