Stephen Paea ready to pick up the slack on defensive line
BY ADAM L. JAHNS Staff Reporter September 27, 2013 9:04PM
Stephen Paea has been the Bears’ best defensive lineman with seven hurries and six tackles. “He’s had a very good first three games,” coach Marc Trestman said. | Getty Images
Updated: October 29, 2013 6:16AM
Bears defensive tackle Stephen Paea would have been upset to see any teammate suffer a season-ending injury. But since it was Henry Melton, his partner in the trenches, there’s an added sting.
Since training camp, the two have talked about how their connection has grown and that a stellar season eating up running backs and harassing quarterbacks could be in the works.
Now there’s no chance of that.
“Especially for him, I play with him inside,” Paea said. “We’re just going to miss him. For him, it’s just be positive, stay up, go day-by-day. He’ll be back when he’s healthy, but we just have to roll with what we have.”
That would be veteran defensive tackle Nate Collins. He will start alongside Paea. Undrafted rookie Zach Minter and new addition Landon Cohen also could be in the mix.
“Nate is doing an outstanding job,” Paea said. “He’s been helping out with the depth on our defensive line. Now the opportunity comes [to start]. Zach is a rookie, but he doesn’t play like a rookie.”
But this also is an opportunity for Paea to continue to come into his own. Paea has been the Bears’ best defensive lineman through three games. Moving him into Melton’s three-technique spot (an alignment typically between the guard and offensive tackle) might be the best option and might turn into more production.
Paea is playing at a Pro Bowl level, whether you look at the Bears’ grades or at Pro Football Focus. According to PFF, Paea has a defensive-line-best 4.1 rating with team highs of seven hurries and six tackles.
“He’s becoming more consistent,” defensive line coach Mike Phair said. “He’s doing a solid job, but we expect more.”
Paea took advantage of the double teams Melton faced at the three-technique, exploiting single blocks at nose tackle. He said he felt insulted by the Bengals’ use of it in Week 1, since he’s supposed to handle the double teams at nose.
Paea said he will see time at both tackle spots, but Phair also stressed Paea will be ready to play the “three,” which is typically reserved for the best pass-rushing, most-disruptive tackles such as the Lions’ Ndamukong Suh.
“It’s up the coaches really,” Paea said. “It’s really up to the game. … There are advantages to the three and advantages to playing the nose. Either way, when you’re able to be versatile and can play both, you’re just an athlete in a three-point stance.”
Former Bears general manager Jerry Angelo moved up in the 2011 draft to select Paea out of Oregon State with the 53rd selection. Injuries have slowed his development, but nothing has held him back this season.
“Stephen’s been as productive as any defensive lineman that we’ve had for the first three games,” coach Marc Trestman said. “He’s moving the front, he runs to the ball, finishes. He’s had a very good first three games.”
The Bears won’t be hard-pressed to replace the performances Melton had in the first three games. Melton had a slow start because of his concussion in the preseason and just started to play like the Pro Bowler from last season against the Steelers, getting two quarterback hurries.
It’s the potential Melton has that will be difficult to compensate for. But Paea seems to fulfilling his own.
“The best thing about it is that [Paea] keeps getting better and understanding how teams are trying to attack him, and where his spaces are, where he can take advantage of those spaces,” linebacker Lance Briggs said. “Stephen is definitely an elite-company-type player.”
And Paea will do it all with Melton in mind.
“It’s a mind game for him,” Paea said. “He’s got long days ahead with his rehab and all that. For me, I just have to stay positive.”