How do you follow a rookie season as impressive as the one enjoyed by Nick Bosa in 2019?
There is an obvious answer to that question. Bosa and all at the San Francisco 49ers' facility are focused on avenging their Super Bowl LIV heartbreak and lifting the Lombardi Trophy, and it is unlikely the star edge rusher will be satisfied with his efforts until that goal is achieved.
Yet the 2019 second overall pick has a challenge on his hands to improve on a remarkable opening act that saw him finish the regular season with nine sacks before dominating in the postseason and adding another four sacks to his name.
According to Pro Football Focus, Bosa racked up an incredible 80 pressures last year, the most by a rookie edge defender since 2006. Former 49er Aldon Smith is a distant second on that list is 64.
In one season Bosa has established himself as one of the most fearsome pass rushers in the NFL. And, while opposing offenses are sure to have an intense focus on limiting his game-wrecking influence in 2020, NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger believes Bosa enters his second season with the potential to become the top defensive player in the league.
Baldinger said last month on 95.7 The Game:
"I think, honestly, in talking to players that have played with Nick Bosa in practice and talking to oppositions that have had to block him, I think he's got a very good chance to be the Defensive MVP of this league.
"I think he has that kind of talent and I think he plays with that type of effort that he can swing any game on any play with his ability to get to the quarterback, draw holding calls, you name it. If the 49ers pull off that Super Bowl game he might very well have been the Super Bowl MVP the way he played in that game. He's probably a top 10 player in this league. You can't say that because he only has 18 or 19 games under his belt right now but I think at this time next year we could be talking about the premier defensive player in this league."
Taking that title away from Los Angeles Rams phenom Aaron Donald is one of the most arduous challenges in football. However, the tape from Bosa's Defensive Rookie of the Year season leaves no doubt that he has everything at his disposal to take on that task, with this selection of plays illustrating just how high the former Ohio State Buckeye's ceiling is.
1. Game-winning pressure vs. Pittsburgh
Bosa did not have a sack in the 49ers' Week 3 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers but he effectively sealed the game with a devastating display of power that would set the tone for the rest of his dominant campaign.
With the Steelers facing a short third down from their own 29-yard line to keep their hopes alive, Bosa slammed the door shut on any realistic prospect of a comeback in a manner that could hardly have been more spectacular.
He exploded off the snap and up into the pads of Alejandro Villanueva, knocking the two-time Pro Bowl left tackle to the turf. Bosa then demonstrated incredible balance and his relentless motor to stay on his feet and then hunt down Mason Rudolph, who broke free of his clutches only to fumble on a hit from DeForest Buckner.
The Steelers recovered the ball but with that play went their chances of triumph, with the Niners soon celebrating a win that Bosa essentially put the capper on.
2. Stunt sack vs. Cleveland
A significant part of Bosa's game is his hand usage, which is developed way beyond most pass rushers of his experience in the pros. The club move, the rip, and the two-hand swipe are all established features of his pass-rush repertoire and his acumen in that regard came to the fore as he and Dee Ford combined to bring down Baker Mayfield on this stunt during the Week 5 shellacking of the Cleveland Browns.
Working from the inside, Bosa quickly swats away the hands of two-time second-team All-Pro guard Joel Bitonio, getting him off balance while clogging the space between Bitonio and left tackle Greg Robinson.
Robinson is impeded to such an extent that Ford is able to loop around on the stunt and get a free run at Mayfield, forcing the quarterback to scramble to his left and into the clutches of Bosa.
Given the depth the 49ers have on the defensive line, the 49ers possess the resources to move Bosa around and use him on the inside regularly in 2020. If both stay healthy, expect Bosa and Ford to be utilized in this fashion consistently as the Niners look to reap the full benefits of having such a devastating pair of edge rushers.
3. Wrecking shop against Whitworth
Conventional NFL wisdom says that a veteran four-time Pro Bowl and two-time first-team All-Pro left tackle does not get overpowered by a rookie pass rusher. It simply just does not happen.
Bosa threw conventional wisdom out of the window in the 49ers' Week 6 throttling of the Los Angeles Rams. He got no credit for it in the box score – Ronald Blair eventually tapping down Jared Goff for the sack – but this play was arguably his most impressive in a season with a litany of candidates.
It was certainly in the running for his most startling effort. Pancaking Villaneuva is one thing, effectively picking up Andrew Whitworth and driving him back towards Goff is a different level altogether.
The sight of Bosa physically dominating a tackle of Whitworth's experience and pedigree that early in his rookie year will have been a jarring one for offensive linemen and O-Line coaches around the league. What was so remarkable about Bosa's early success was not just the caliber of player he made look foolish but also the ease with which he did it, and he did not let up as San Francisco made it through the stretch run and into the postseason.
4. Reeling in Rodgers
Such is Bosa's play strength that he was able to succeed and get home on pressures even when opposing offensive linemen used unconventional methods to try to keep him at bay.
Green Bay Packers tackle Alex Light learned just how difficult it is to slow down Bosa in the 49ers' 37-8 blowout win in Week 12.
Bosa turned his burst off the snap into the power needed to generate great initial push against Light before utilizing his hands to turn the tackle's arms to the left and then dipping to try to turn the corner with the help of a rip move.
Light attempted to nullify Bosa's rush by wrapping his right arm around his chin. This tactic proved in vain, though, as pressure from Damontre Moore helped collapse the pocket, allowing Bosa to reel in Rodgers and take both quarterback and the tackle to the ground.
Green Bay's NFC North rivals the Minnesota Vikings also had to resort to desperation to try to neutralize Bosa in the NFC Divisional Round game, their efforts also ultimately rendered redundant.
5. Rip move too much for Hill
From the Divisional Round right through to the Super Bowl, Bosa's performances during his first NFL postseason were monstrous and he hit the ground running in his playoff debut against the Vikings with a two-sack display.
The first of those sacks encapsulates the challenge pass protectors face in attempting to keep him from affecting the game.
Bosa did not get the same kind of initial push against Rashod Hill as he did when going against Light, however, he still found a way to bring Kirk Cousins down.
He worked his hands to Hill's elbows and pulled the tackle's arms down to set up the dip and rip move, which proved successful despite Hill wrapping his right arm under Bosa's chin and then leaving his feet with a futile dive to try to prevent the sack.
Bosa did not manhandle Hill like he did so many other tackles during his rookie year, yet he had the speed of thought to instantly settle on a plan B that worked to perfection. So often throughout Bosa's rookie season, he found a way through and offensive linemen ended up on the ground.
And even when he wasn't rushing the quarterback, the Pro Bowl defensive end still consistently impacted the passing game.
6. Heroics in coverage
Bosa is unsurprisingly a force against the run. He excels at shedding blockers, finding the football and making plays in the backfield, as evidenced by the 16 tackles for loss he racked up as a rookie.
Those who have attempted to block Bosa with a tight end in the running game have soon discovered the error of their ways while the perpetual motor that is on show on almost every pass-rush snap translates to plays where he is in pursuit in the open field.
A more unexpected development of Bosa's rookie season was the ability he showcased in making plays on the ball in coverage. Having Bosa do anything other than rush the quarterback on passing downs would seem to be a mistake but he displayed instincts in reading the quarterback that could lead the 49ers to use him in coverage more regularly to diversify their pass-rush looks.
In the Niners' shootout win over the New Orleans Saints Bosa did an excellent job of getting off the block from Ryan Ramczyk after recognizing the imminent swing pass from Drew Brees to Alvin Kamara, tracking the ball and making an athletic play on it to break up the throw.
He demonstrated tremendous change of direction skills in covering Dalvin Cook out of the backfield and registering another pass breakup versus Minnesota.
The combination of that ability to redirect and the balance that was apparent on so many of his rushes enabled Bosa to make a stunning leaping interception of Kyle Allen in Week 8, juking the then Panthers quarterback during the return on perhaps the most memorable play of his rookie season.
From controlling matchups with premier offensive linemen to freakish displays of athleticism beyond the realm of most defensive ends, Bosa's rookie campaign was a ceaseless demonstration of why he was the best player in the 2019 draft. However, going into 2020, Bosa sees an obvious area where he can improve his game.
Finishing the job
Blessed with the power and intelligent hand usage to derail opposing offenses and the athletic ability to make extraordinary plays outside of simply rushing the passer, it is difficult to find weaknesses in Bosa's play.
Yet Bosa pointed to several recently when asked where he wants to make strides in the 2020 season during his first training camp press conference.
"I got some pretty concrete things that I've been focusing on. One is just having a better plan going into games. Last year I didn't really know what was going to work and what wasn't and what was my go-to. Coming into games with a better plan and not wasting any time out there because you only get so many opportunities and you want to get those big numbers and help your team as best you can and get the ball out.
You have to come in with a plan and not waste any rushes. That's one big thing and then just working my hands more consistently. I win a lot at the top of my rush but a lot of the time I get washed by the quarterback and I don't close enough space and finish the play. That's probably been the biggest emphasis for me and I've been working on that in walkthroughs and in drills. A couple new moves I might add, those are the main things really."
Evidently his own harshest critic, Bosa's comments on the consistency with which he works his hands and developing more of a plan are indicative of the high standards he sets himself. It is ominous for future opponents if Bosa was producing at the level he did last season without a clear plan, but the tape vindicates his remarks about not finishing rushes.
Undone by the elusiveness of Jameis Winston and Russell Wilson, as well as the pocket movement of Matt Ryan, there were instances throughout the season of Bosa having a clear run at the quarterback and being unable to bring them down to register the sack.
While Shaquil Barrett's league-leading tally of 19.5 was always going to be a tough one to match, had Bosa converted those potential sacks he would have been in the same ballpark as Cameron Jordan (15.5) and Danielle Hunter (14.5) and had a significantly stronger case for Defensive Player of the Year.
Having made not letting those chances slip a point of focus in the offseason, going forward fewer quarterbacks may be evading the grasp of a pass rusher who made the transition to the NFL look absurdly easy.
The opportunities to ensure his 2020 statistics match his dominant performances should be plentiful for a player who has the all-around skill set to wreak havoc for years to come. If he improves at taking them, the tag of Defensive MVP of the league may soon be attached to a pass rusher with a boundless ceiling.
Media courtesy AP Images