BOURBONNAIS -- Second-year defensive tackle Stephen Paea is keeping it simple this season, and the early results are encouraging.
At Thursday's practice, Paea took the majority of the first-team reps at nose tackle, the first indication that he may have permanently moved past his mentor and close friend, Matt Toeaina, on the depth chart.
"I can't be satisfied right now," Paea said. "I still have games to play, and I need to prove it that I'm worth having the job."
As a rookie last season the Oregon State product showed flashes of brilliance. On his first NFL snap he sacked Minnesota Vikings quarterback Donovan McNabb for a safety.
But a nagging knee injury that required off-season arthroscopic surgery limited his effectiveness. Paea came to camp this season healthy and focused with a basic philosophy.
"I'm not trying to prove anything to anybody," the 2011 second-round pick said. "I'm just trying to be a better me from last year, and tomorrow I'll be a better me than I was today."
The 6-foot-1, 300-pound Paea lacks the elite size of some NFL nose tackles, but the Bears believe he's big enough and strong enough to anchor the run defense and has enough quickness to get penetration into the backfield against the run and rush the passer.
He played some at the 3-technique last season and will continue to get snaps there in nickel.
This season defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli has informed Paea that he needs to be more than a run stuffer.
"He wants (me to be) disrupting and be in the backfield all the time," Paea said. "Just be active in there. He wants the nose tackle like the under (3-technique) tackle. Get in the backfield, disrupt the running plays, and get sacks."
With a sound knee, a productive off-season and a year's experience, Paea feels he's more qualified than ever to meet those demands.
"I'm in the best shape of my life (going into) the season, I'm healthy, I'm stronger than ever," he said. "The knee is way better, and (because of that) my change of direction.
"I'm going left, right, it doesn't matter. Sometimes I forget I had a knee problem. I stay on my feet a lot better; I don't fall down because my right knee is weak and I can't hold off double-teams."
For now, the best Paea can say about his ability to get after the quarterback is: "I'm not a bad pass rusher." But it's something he's working hard to improve.
Marinelli is pleased with everything he has seen from Paea but far from satisfied.
"One thing he shows is tremendous (ability to) get off (the ball)," the defensive coordinator said. "He plays with great pad level, and he's healthy.
"You can tell. When you get out there, you feel him. And that's the way it should be. You should be able to feel him."
If it turns out that Paea's and Toeaina's roles are reversed this year, it won't change things between them. The two players of Polynesian descent bonded almost immediately after Paea was drafted.
So there won't be any of the typical awkwardness that often comes with a change in the pecking order. And both players will get plenty of snaps since the Bears prefer to rotate at last three tackles, preferably four.
"Matt's been great to me," Paea said. "He came up to me and said, 'Keep grinding. You're doing great things.' Coming from him, he's been my mentor for a long time; he's like a brother to me.
"Me and Matt are cool. There's nothing (bad) between us. Whatever is football is football, and whatever is our personal life is fine."