NaVorro Bowman finished the 2013 regular season on an absolute tear. The recently named NFC Defensive Player of the Month for December has been all over the field not just this past month, but over the course of the entire season. Bowman finished the year as Pro Football Focus's top graded inside linebacker and his finish to the season is a big reason why. Three of Bowman's four highest graded games on the season came in the final three games of the year, where the full range of his skills were on display.
The brilliance of Bowman – along with teammate Patrick Willis for that matter – isn't his exceptional effort in any single aspect of playing linebacker, it's his lack of any true weakness. Whether defending the run, dropping into coverage or rushing the passer, Bowman is more than capable of making plays regardless of what it is Vic Fangio asks him to do. On Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals, the full array of Bowman's talents were on display. Let's go to the All-22 for a proper breakdown of Bowman's monster performance.
Bowman in coverage
We pick things up early in the first quarter on Arizona's second possession of the day. San Francisco is in their base 3-4 defense with a Cover-3 coverage called. Arizona is working a double slant concept to the right side of the field with receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd. Bowman, aligned over the right guard, is responsible for the hook/curl zone. He's going to be looking to sink underneath the no. 2 receiver to his side of the field, Floyd in this case.
After the snap, Bowman works his way into his drop, reading Carson Palmer's eyes. Palmer initially looks outside to Fitzgerald (it's incredible that Palmer doesn't make that throw, but that's another topic). Once Palmer comes back inside to Floyd, Bowman sticks his outside foot in the ground and reroutes his drop back inside. Now, this is a pretty inexcusable throw by Palmer even is Bowman was nowhere to be found. Remove Bowman from the equation and one of two things likely happen: 1) Floyd gets blown up by Donte Whitner or 2) Eric Reid gets his hand in there to break-up the pass.
Instead, Bowman turns what would've simply ended up as an incompletion into a turnover by recognizing where Palmer was trying to go with the ball and making a fantastic adjustment and play on the ball, giving the 49ers' offense the ball just outside of the red zone. That's a throw that gets passed a lot of inside linebackers in the league, which is about the only reason that I can think Palmer tried to make it.
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Later in the game, Bowman's coverage ability was on display again. This play doesn't have outcome that we're looking for, but as I've tried to stress before, it's not always about the outcome. Here, Bowman is in man coverage on tight end Rob Housler, who's running up the seam.
Following the snap, Bowman maintains inside leverage on Housler. Knowing that he has safety help over the top, when he begins to turn and run he stays right on Housler's inside hip. Once Housler starts looking to make the catch, Bowman turns his head, locates the ball and goes up to make a play. It's perfect coverage from Bowman, but the ball goes just over his outstretched fingertips and Housler makes a great catch in traffic, absorbing a hit from Eric Reid in the process. Sometimes you just have to tip your hat to the other guys and move on to the next play. But against a lot of other inside linebackers, that's not nearly as difficult of a throw and catch.
Bowman in run defense
In the run game, it was another fine day for the All-Pro inside linebacker. Bowman matched his season-high run defense grade, per PFF, and I'm sure that his second forced turnover of the day was a big reason for it.
Arizona lines up in a single back formation with two tight ends to the right of the offense. San Francisco matches with their base 3-4. Run defense is far from a one-man show. You'll certainly have some outstanding individual efforts that can lead to negative plays, but having consistently good run defense is about the entire front working together as a unit. As I'm sure Bowman would be the first to tell you, a big reason he's able to make this play is due to the efforts of Ray McDonald and Glenn Dorsey up front.
Both McDonald and Dorsey take on double teams, preventing anyone from getting up to the second level to pick-up Bowman. From here, Bowman goes to work. His eyes are on running back Rashard Mendenhall the entire way and as soon as Mendenhall makes his move to the outside – as you can see from the image above – Bowman mirrors that movement. Bowman fills the hole and meets Mendenhall at the line of scrimmage. Once it's clear that Mendenhall is no longer going to be able to advance any further, Bowman attacks the ball, successfully ripping it from Mendenhall's grasp and recovering it himself for good measure.
Football Outsiders tracks a stat they call second level yards, which attempts to isolate running back yardage once they've cleared the defensive line. San Francisco has consistently been among the best in the league in this category, ranking sixth this season after leading the league in each of the two seasons prior. The play of Bowman and Willis are obviously a large reason that's the case.
Bowman as a pass rusher
Perhaps Bowman's greatest skill is his ability to rush the passer from the inside linebacker position. Bowman finished the season with the highest pass rush grade of any inside linebacker, per PFF, nearly doubling up the next closest player. He doesn't blitz a ton, but when he does he is consistently able to affect the play.
On this play, Arizona lines up in an Offset I formation, which means we again find San Francisco in their 3-4 defense. The 49ers are going to bring both Bowman and Willis on a cross blitz from the inside while dropping outside linebackers Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks into coverage. This is a simple, yet great design on the blitz by Vic Fangio. As you can see in the image above, nose tackle Glenn Dorsey has moved into a shaded nose alignment on the right shoulder of center Lyle Sendlein. Justin Smith has kicked down inside a bit and is aligned in the 3-technique on the outside shoulder of left guard Daryn Colledge. These alignments force Sendlein and Colledge to have to account for Dorsey and Smith, respectively.
When both Dorsey and Smith slant to the outside, it takes the blockers with them and opens up a lane for Bowman. By the time that Sendlein realizes what's happening, it's far too late and Bowman is already by him. Bowman does a nice job avoiding the desperation block attempt by Mendenhall and brings Palmer down for the sack.
Bowman's final month has launched him into the conversation for the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year award. Based on a number of different factors, I don't know that he actually ends up winning the honor, but he absolutely belongs in the discussion. Since taking over for Takeo Spikes in 2011, Bowman has consistently been one of the top players at his position and 2013 has been his finest effort to date.