Barber: Nick Bosa rattles Mayfield in 49ers’ 31-3 win

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SANTA CLARA

After the game, he admitted he had practiced his elaborate pantomime.

“I kinda did,” Nick Bosa said in the locker room, after his 49ers had thrashed the Cleveland Browns 31-3 at Levi’s Stadium. “I was thinking, like, do I need to practice it? Is it gonna look bad? But yeah, I practiced a little bit in my room.”

If Bosa should sack Baker Mayfield, the Cleveland quarterback, he had visualized what would happen next. He would reenact Mayfield’s brash and controversial post-game celebration from September of 2017. Mayfield played for the University of Oklahoma then, Bosa for Ohio State. After the Sooners won at Columbus, Ohio, in a statement game, Mayfield ran to midfield, waved a giant OU flag and planted it right in the middle of the capital “O.” It was an act that dripped with disrespect.

Bosa, apparently, stewed on this incident for more than two years.

“Just wanted to get payback,” he said Monday night. “He had it coming.”

During the 49ers’ bye, as the team prepared for an important showdown with the Browns, Bosa talked to a former college teammate, Sam Hubbard, now a Bengals defensive end. “I told him I was gonna do it, and he said, ‘Hey, I was gonna do it when we play them.’ ”

But Bosa got there first. And he didn’t even need an official sack to launch the routine. On the final play of the first half, Bosa circled around the outside shoulder of Cleveland left tackle Greg Robinson and put Mayfield in an ankle trap. The quarterback unloaded the ball in desperation, to no one in particular, and was flagged for intentional grounding.

That was all Bosa needed. He ran in the direction of the north end zone, waved a huge invisible flag and planted it in the Levi’s turf, a roast two years in the making. He had Mayfield’s taunt so perfectly choreographed that when someone posted the two celebrations side-by-side online, they were practically in lockstep.

“I mean, the image was in my head pretty good, so I kind of had a good idea,” Bosa said.

The rookie has been pretty circumspect since he arrived in Santa Clara. He doesn’t seem like a loud person to begin with, and a lot of NFL players take some time to find their voice in the locker room. And Bosa has good reason to be careful with his words. He got to the NFL with a well-documented reputation as a Trump supporter, a tricky position for an athlete who (a) plays in the Bay Area and (b) makes his money in a sport dominated by African-American men.

But something about this game, and about Mayfield, loosened Bosa’s inhibitions. He wasn’t just happy after the blowout win. The man was salty as Dutch licorice.

Was he talking to Mayfield during the game? Bosa: “I don’t usually talk. But this game, he had it coming. But he didn’t say one word back.”

What was he saying to Mayfield? Bosa: “I don’t know. I was just screaming his name, like, ‘Baakerr. Baakerr. You good? Come on, pick it up. We want a challenge.’ And he was just looking at me like…”

And here Bosa lowered his head and made the face of a little kid who had been rebuked for trying to grab an extra Tootsie Roll.

Did Mayfield — who, by the way, stands a relatively modest 6 foot, 1 inch — seem rattled during game? Bosa: “Yeah. I mean, I don’t know how anybody thought he’d be able to see over Arik (Armstead) and Buck (DeForest Buckner). But he was panicking. He was double clutching, rolling back and forth. We had him rattled all game.”

Provocative words from Bosa, but could anyone say he was wrong? The 49ers’ defensive line had Mayfield fleeing the pocket and rushing throws all game. At least the second-year QB has company. It wasn’t much different for Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston in Week 1, or Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton in Week 2, or Pittsburgh’s Mason Rudolph in Week 3. Dalton was the only one of them who threw for more than 174 yards and had a passer rating of better than 81.4, and he was never in the game, either.

Granted, there isn’t a Tom Brady or an Aaron Rodgers in that group. Mayfield is still learning the position. But the sample size is big enough to declare that the 49ers have a dominant pass rush. They have 13 sacks in four games. That pencils out to a projected 52 for the year, a healthy number. But the statistic that really pops is 26. That’s how many times the 49ers have hit opposing quarterbacks in 2019.

And those hits have been distributed fairly evenly: six against Winston, seven against Dalton, five against Rudolph and eight against poor Mayfield. No matter who you are or how you play the position, the Niners are going to be in your grille. They will do it consistently, violently and at the least opportune moments (for the offense).

And the Niners are doing this while blitzing very little. They thrive with a four-man rush built from a deep rotation of defensive linemen. It starts with defensive tackle Buckner, the one established star prior to this season. It kicked into overdrive with the addition of Bosa and edge rusher Dee Ford, a free-agent acquisition. And it fills out with significant contributions from guys like Ronald Blair III, Armstead and Solomon Thomas.

Before Week 5, Bosa had been the guy who applied much of the pressure but received little of the glory. As my colleague Grant Cohn has pointed out, charting defensive “pressures” is tricky business. But it’s safe to say Bosa had a lot of them through the first three games. Yet he had just one sack.

That changed against the Browns. Bosa sacked Mayfield twice, forced a fumble and recovered a different fumble, becoming the first 49ers player in 25 years to hit all of those marks in a single game. And he hit Mayfield five times.

It was a fantastic game for the rookie. But Ford, a sixth-year veteran, refused to call it a breakout performance.

“Nah,” Ford said. “When I see what he can do — he’ll have a breakout game. This was definitely a level up for him. He’s a game-wrecker. Period. I think we’re gonna see a lot more of Nick.”

Oh, and as a side note, the 49ers are 4-0. They and the New England Patriots are the last unbeaten teams in the league. It’s a wild change of direction for this team, which finished 4-12 last year. The Niners have planted their flag in the middle of the NFL shield, and it all starts with a relentless defensive line and a rookie end who beginning to make himself heard.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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