SANTA CLARA — It takes a while to find 49ers edge rusher Nick Bosa among the NFL sack leaders.
With 2 1/2 sacks in seven games, Bosa is on pace for roughly six sacks over a 17-game season, nowhere near what the 49ers or anyone else expected. Not after cashing in on an 18 1/2-sack season and NFL Defensive Player of the Year award for a five-year contract extension worth as much as $170 million.
The highest-paid non-quarterback in the NFL is tied for 64th in sacks. A half-sack behind his brother Joey, an edge rusher for the Los Angeles Chargers. A half-sack behind second-year teammate Drake Jackson, who had a hat trick in the opener and but has fallen off the map in terms of playing time since the trade for defensive end Randy Gregory.
On the opposite sideline Sunday will be Cincinnati defensive Trey Hendrickson, who dropped from 14 sacks in 2021 to eight a year ago but already has seven this season.
When questioned about Hendrickson’s rebound this season, Bengals coach Zac Taylor cut reporters off with a bull rush of his own.
“Maybe he didn’t have an extra-high number of sacks, but he impacted a lot of games,” Taylor said. “Some years you’re going to have sack production and some years you won’t. Sometimes it’s just a millisecond with the quarterback getting the ball out of his hands or some other factor.”
Which is precisely where the 49ers are right now with Bosa. Opponents consider him so proficient and impactful that Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins told Peyton Manning before his Monday night “ManningCast” he had a series of five plays he could check to any time Bosa was taking a breather.
Those plays called for deeper drops and required more time — time that the Vikings didn’t believe would exist when Bosa was on the field. Sure enough, the first time Bosa departed, Cousins went downfield for a 17-yard gain. Manning couldn’t help but pat himself on the back for relaying the inside information.
Kyle Shanahan, the 49ers’ coach, was unimpressed. He said Wednesday it was standard procedure for any team facing a dynamic edge rusher.
“Everybody does it,” Shanahan said as the 49ers (5-2) began preparations in earnest to host the Cincinnati Bengals (3-3) Sunday at Levi’s Stadium.
Bosa is getting chipped by tight ends and running backs and faces double-teams. Which happened last season and pretty much since he came in as a can’t-miss No. 2 overall pick out of Ohio State in 2019.
“Everybody outside the building is going to talk about how many sacks he has and is he affecting the game that way,” linebacker Fred Warner said. “But he affects it in so many different ways aside from sacks and that’s why he’s one of the best defensive players in the league and why he got paid as such.”
In judging his own performance, Bosa said he had bad games against Pittsburgh in Week 1 and Cleveland in Week 6.
“I’ve had two games that are below my standard and I’ve been happy with a lot of the things I’ve done in other games, but I don’t think I’ve played a great game yet,” Bosa said.
49ers’ edge rusher Nick Bosa had 18 1/2 sacks last season but is on pace for just six through seven games in 2023. Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group
Great games go hand-in-hand with great money. Or at least they’re supposed to. Bosa said his own measure of performance isn’t complicated.
“It’s pretty simple for me,” Bosa said. “It’s just what I’m focused on. Just the mindset that I go into the game with focusing on getting off the ball as good as I can and be physical and everything else kind of takes care of itself. When I don’t do that, then I’m trying to play what I’m seeing and I’m a step behind.”
As much as Bosa covets sacks, he buys into Taylor’s theory that they don’t tell the whole story in terms of performance.
“I try not to equate them because it’s not an exact correlation at all,” Bosa said. “I think I’ve played some really good games this year that haven’t been sack games. Then I got one against Cleveland and it was one of my worst games.
“There are a lot of factors, but I think if you just stay the course they’ll eventually come if you’re putting yourself in the right positions. I’m trying to continue to play up to my standard and I think they’ll come. It’s a really long year so hopefully it’s in the biggest moments when they come.”
Shanahan doesn’t seem overly concerned. Sacks are the result of rush and coverage, and those two factors have yet to even out on Bosa’s rushes.
“I look at how people move and whether they look in shape or as talented as the year before, and he looks the exact same,” Shanahan said. “I know the results haven’t been there. When Bosa beats someone, there’s got to be nowhere to go with the ball . . . When we’ve had people covered, I don’t feel like we’ve always had that rush.”
Bosa concedes that the training camp holdout that earned him an average salary of $34 million might have been great for his bank account, but wasn’t ideal in terms of getting off to a good start.
“I’m trying to work on stuff this year that I wasn’t able to do in camp,” Bosa said. “Those (bad) games I mentioned, I think I was thinking too much because I was trying to add something to my rush plan, which is not what I want to be doing during the season. I want to be locked in on what I do best throughout the whole year. There’s no excuse at this point for that.”
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The 49ers have a list of concerns from their 22-17 loss to Minnesota after giving up 452 yards of total offense, allowing Cousins to beat them repeatedly on third down and finishing with zero sacks.
Warner sees no difference in Bosa’s explosion or dedication.
“He obviously has a very high standard for himself,” Warner said. “He’s the last person I’m worried about.”