Nick Bosa is playing like a Defensive Player of the Year, and 49ers need him more than ever

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- As the San Francisco 49ers made their final preparations for the Miami Dolphins on Saturday night, coach Kyle Shanahan decided to have a little fun at his defensive line's expense. Or so he thought.

In the midst of that meeting, Shanahan turned to defensive end Nick Bosa and Co. and suggested the Niners' linebackers had outplayed the front four in the previous week's shutout against the New Orleans Saints. Shanahan made the comment in jest, hoping to draw a smile or laugh from the team's most valuable position group.

Bosa stared back blankly.

"I thought they would smile at it, but he didn't smile at all," Shanahan said.

While Bosa is known around the Niners' facility for his quiet, dry humor, what he's accomplished in 2022 is no laughing matter. In his 11 games (he missed one with a groin injury), Bosa has 14.5 sacks (most in the NFL), a forced fumble, 36 tackles, 41 pressures (tied for third) and a 13.4% pressure percentage (ninth). Opposing quarterbacks are 10-of-23 for 110 yards and a QBR of 8.0 when Bosa gets the first pressure, and his 39 sacks trails only Aldon Smith's 44 for the most by a Niner in his first four seasons with the team.

All of that has been enough to make Bosa a frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year and positions him to land the largest contract ever for a defensive player in the offseason.

"He brings a confidence and a true playmaker that every defense needs," coordinator DeMeco Ryans said. "Every defense, if you're going to be a great defense, you need that guy on the edge who can rush the passer, who can get at the quarterback at very critical moments, at all times throughout the game. And that's what Nick provides for us, he can go close out games ... He's a big-time playmaker in his league, no matter who he goes against, he always has a chance to win, so that's what he brings."

Since the Niners used the No. 2 overall pick on him in 2019, they've never needed Bosa's game-wrecking ability more than they do now. With starting quarterbacks Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo lost to season-ending right ankle and left foot injuries, respectively, and seventh-round rookie Brock Purdy taking over, the onus to carry the 49ers to Super Bowl heights falls even further on their top-ranked defense.

Through 12 games, the Niners rank first in the NFL in fewest points allowed per game (15.8) and fewest yards allowed per game (283.9) with an eye toward improving even more.

"Whenever you lose somebody, offensive or defense, you have to step it up and I think we have the defense that can do that," Bosa said.

At the heart of that defense is Bosa, who has been one of the team's best players since being drafted and has continued to get better in ensuing seasons, especially now that he's two years clear of the season-ending torn left ACL he suffered in 2020. Bosa surprised himself with how he bounced back in 2021, when he posted a career-high 15.5 sacks.

The challenge for Bosa entering this year was to not only duplicate that performance but improve upon it. With five games to play, he's done just that. Ryans sees a player who gets plenty of credit for his pass-rushing prowess while being doubled teamed on 20.4% of his snaps but is also an elite edge setter and key to the 49ers holding opponents to league lows in rushing yards per game (75.6) and rushing yards per attempt (3.35).

More than that, the Niners have noticed Bosa's increased ability to deliver when it matters most. Against the Saints, he provided the fourth-quarter sack that killed a New Orleans drive deep in San Francisco territory. Against the Dolphins on Sunday, Bosa faced a pair of backup offensive tackles and subsequently dominated the game, posting three sacks and a forced fumble that led to a game-sealing scoop and score by linebacker Dre Greenlaw.

"I think everybody here knows that he is just elite and he’s the best," linebacker Fred Warner said. "He put the stamp on it. That’s what you need from your best players to make plays where it matters the most. I'm so happy for him and I'm so proud of him."

The 49ers hope that Bosa's domination of the Dolphins is a harbinger of things to come. It was the second three-sack game of Bosa's career and he's registered at least one sack in six straight games and one in every game he's played from start to finish this season.

Perhaps Bosa's performance against Miami was no coincidence given the matchup. Or maybe something more was at play after Shanahan's pre-game prodding.

"He threw a little shade at me and the D-line, so we kind of talked in our meeting," Bosa said. "We don't like being called out like that. It's our head coach, so he obviously has the right and he watches the tape more than anybody and he expects the most out of us."

After Bosa sacked Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and forced the fumble Greenlaw recovered, Bosa ran to the sideline and beelined for Shanahan.

"He came right up to me," Shanahan said. "I thought we were going to celebrate together and he goes, 'that's what happens when you talk s--- about me in a team meeting.' And I go, 'I'll make a note, I'll make sure to do it a lot more.'"