BOURBONNAIS -- Bears nose tackle Stephen Paea is well aware that he has reached a pivotal point in his career.
The 6-foot-1, 300-pound 2011 second-round draft choice out of Oregon State burst onto the scene in his NFL debut when he sacked Minnesota Vikings quarterback Donovan McNabb for a safety. Paea has started 24 games in the previous two seasons, flashing strength and quickness but never really establishing himself as a set-in-concrete starter.
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His status appeared more tenuous on draft day this May when the Bears used second- and third-round picks on defensive tackles Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton, respectively. Entering the final year of his rookie contract, Paea realizes his future with the Bears and in the NFL could hang in the balance.
"At the end of the day, it's who wants it more, and I can't let a rookie come in and take my job if it comes down to that," said Paea, who missed three games last season with a toe injury. "I have to come out here and perform, not only for myself but for my family.
"At the same time, I still have to help out my teammates and help myself get better every day."
When it comes to family, Paea has plenty to play for. Shortly before the start of last year's training camp his wife, Susannah, gave birth to triplets -- playmates for their oldest child, 3-year-old Leimana, and three more mouths to feed.
"This is a big year for me," Paea said. "Every year has been a big year, but this time it's like I have no more second chances. It's time for me to step it up. Fortunately I'm healthy. If I stay healthy, I can be a beast in the middle and help out our defense."
Paea and 10th-year veteran Jeremiah Ratliff, the starter at the 3-technique tackle, are key elements in the Bears' quest to improve on last year's run defense that was the NFL's worst. But Ferguson and Sutton are expected to help as well.
Ideally, defensive coordinator Mel Tucker will have four tackles who all can contribute in a platoon system that allows each player to perform at peak efficiency. Ratliff predicts success for the two youngsters, but he and Paea are the lead dogs for now.
"My personal belief is that they're going to be playing in this league for a long time," Ratliff said of the two rookies. "It's our job to teach them the right way and help them as much as possible. Then, when our day is up, we're leaving the organization in good hands. That's part of being a professional."
Paea knows part of his job is to help the rookies make the adjustment to the league because it helps the team in the long run. But the team also benefits from Paea playing his best football, and that means holding off the challenge from younger players.
"There's always a challenge, but I can't look back at who's behind me," Paea said. "I just have to be a better me, better than last year, better tomorrow than today, because when I get better my team's going to get better. The only thing I can control is me."
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