Back with another installment in this series, and we are getting closer to the top spot as we work our way through revealing the top five on the list.
As a refresher, the factors I used to create this list include how did each performance hold up with the eye test. After going back and watching the game film, was it as impressive now as it was at the time?
I also heavily weighed the game’s impact, meaning the stakes of each contest played a pivotal role in how these rankings ultimately played out—finally, good old-fashioned statistics. So while the eye test was the primary factor being weighed, I also made it a point to place enough emphasis on the objective numbers a player posted in their respective games.
Without further ado, number four on the list:
Nick Bosa - Week 15 vs. Atlanta
It should come as no surprise that the 49ers' superstar edge rusher made this list, but what potentially might surprise some is the game that earned Bosa this spot in the top five. For starters, picking these players for this list has been extremely difficult, and many tough decisions had to be made.
Particularly with a player like Bosa, who provided so many noteworthy individual performances throughout the 2021 season. To paint a picture of just how difficult it was to pinpoint one Bosa performance that truly stood above the rest, he recorded five or more pressures in nine different games and had multiple sacks in six games.
But what separated this performance for me was how Bosa flat-out demoralized the Falcons offensive line over the course of this game. They threw everything they had at slowing down Bosa, and it still was nowhere near enough to prevent the 49ers star from terrorizing Matt Ryan all afternoon.
To dominate the way Bosa did in this game while having that much of the opponents' game plan built around slowing you down is the ethos of defining individual excellence in my eyes and largely what inspired me to write this series. So let me start with some examples of just how attention was diverted towards Bosa in this game.
With 14:41 remaining in the second quarter, the Falcons are facing a third and eight from their own 45-yard line. The 49ers' defense lines up in their iconic Wide-9 formation, in an overloaded front that put three players on the right side of the Falcons' offensive line, including Bosa, who is lined up at the 9-technique.
Atlanta has tight end, Hayden Hurst in the slot, who is going to chip Bosa before leaking into his route in the flat. After the slight delay from the chip, Bosa then angles toward right tackle Kaleb McGary, and immediately upon engaging, Bosa drives into the chest plate of the Falcons right tackle and drives him backward while knocking him off his base.
While this happens, Falcons right guard Chris Lindstrom towards Bosa with the intent of double-teaming the 49ers edge, but due to Bosa’s explosive bull rush on McGary, Lindstrom mistimes his block, which allows Bosa to utilize his hands to slide horizontally past Lindstrom.
In the midst of this, quarterback Matt Ryan looks to escape the pocket but is quickly shut down by Bosa, sealing off the rushing lane he was attempting the break free through. This forces Ryan to retreat back into the pocket, where after bumping into his own right tackle, is sacked by Arden Key for a loss of 12 yards.
Even on a play where Atlanta tasked three of their own players with slowing down Bosa, the transcendent edge rusher still found a way to disrupt this play and make a contribution that directly led to a sack, even if it wasn’t his name that it would be assigned to in the box score.
Plays like this truly encapsulate how great Bosa is and how respected and feared he is by the opposition. This is the kind of display that separates the really good players from the indisputably elite ones.
When a team throws the kitchen sink at you, and you still manage to create problems, you are firmly in the discussion among the greats at your respective position. From very early on in his NFL, Bosa has made clear he belongs in.
Atlanta did something similar in the fourth quarter, facing a third and four from their own 37-yard line. The 49ers again come out in an overloaded front in the wide 9, but this time Bosa is isolated on his own over the right tackle with three on the opposite side. Bosa is lined up in the 9-technique, directly across from Falcons wide receiver Olamide Zacchaeus.
The Falcons call a play action that fakes a hand-off to the left, with Ryan on what appears to be a designed rollout to his right. However, Zacchaeus stays back to block Bosa and actually does an admirable job considering the size disparity between the two.
However, Bosa still gets enough depth in the backfield to disrupt this play, forcing Ryan to step up directly into the waiting arms of linebacker Fred Warner which led to an errant throw and an incompletion on a play that is designed to get Ryan a relatively easy completion with plenty of room to throw.
The Falcons also utilized a chip block from someone in the backfield in an attempt to slow down Bosa on multiple occasions.
With 8:20 remaining in the first quarter, Atlanta faced a second and nine from the 49ers ' yard line. The Falcons came out in 12 personnel, with tight end Kyle Pitts lined up inline outside of the right tackle. Bosa is lined up across from Pitts in the 9-technique.
Atlanta calls play action, and as part of their intention to sell the run fake, they task Pitts with blocking Bosa off the snap. After the play fake, Pitts leaks off his block and runs his route over the middle. The Falcons had both Keith Smith and Cordarelle Patterson waiting in the backfield to pick up Bosa. Smith engages, while Patterson throws a chip block en route to leaking out to the flat on the right side.
Later, in the fourth quarter, the Falcons returned to a chip block on passing downs. Facing third and six inside the 49ers' red zone, Atlanta had running back Mike Smith throw a chip block on Bosa while he was engaged with McGary on the right side of the line.
Atlanta seemingly exhausted every option to slow Bosa down, but the reality is you aren’t going to be able to outwit Bosa and defensive coordinator De’Meco Ryans very often.
At a certain point, scheme can only do so much for you. Eventually, you’ll have to hold your own on an island with Bosa if your team has any shot at handling business against the 49ers. When Bosa got one on one matchups in this game, he not only won them. He absolutely dominated them.
Before I get into the home run plays from Bosa in this game, I wanted to take a moment to focus on some reps from Bosa that likely were either forgotten or simply never noticed due to the end result of the play. The unfortunate part about playing in the trenches on either side of the ball is that perception of individual performance is often driven by the net result of the combined 11 players on the field as a whole.
I’m going to show a couple of examples here, with the focus intending to highlight Bosa in his individual matchup, rather than the outcome of the given play. One of the main reasons I wanted to put together this series is to highlight the individual greatness of plays just like these, which often get forgotten when the outcome of the play isn’t directly favorable to the team as a whole.
Such as dominating your matchup against an offensive lineman, but the former MVP quarterbacking the other team gets the ball out before the pressure can get all the way home, which is exactly what happened with 5:18 remaining in the second quarter in this game.
The Falcons are facing a second and four from the 49ers' 30-yard line, and Bosa is lined up in the 9-technique on the right side of Atlanta’s offensive line. Bosa displays an exquisite use of hand placement to keep McGary’s arms down, not allowing the right tackle to get his hands on Bosa while attempting to stay in front of him.
Bosa then showcases elite bend to get around the edge, arriving at the quarterback just a fraction of a second after the ball comes out of Ryan’s hands. On an individual level, this rep was simply masterful. However it didn’t end in a sack or a turnover, and it actually netted positive yardage for the Falcons' offense. So in the grand scheme of things, a rep from Bosa on a play like this, unfortunately, gets forgotten.
This happened on a handful of plays in this game, where Bosa’s individual success was spectacular but masked because the overall result of the play netted a less than memorable outcome for the majority of 49ers fans watching.
With 4:50 remaining in the second quarter, Bosa again beats McGary around the edge, this time with Atlanta facing a third and four from the 49ers' 30-yard line. Bosa loses his balance while working back into the pocket, and the slight delay caused by that leads to Key combining for the sack with Bosa who brings Ryan down by his legs.
As many of you remember, this ultimately resulted in one of the most questionable roughing the passer penalties I have ever seen called at any level of football.
On the last play of the first quarter, Atlanta faced a third and two from their own 28-yard line. They ran a play fake to Patterson, but Bosa doesn’t bite on the play action and gets into the backfield to flush Ryan out of the pocket. Atlanta converted the third down on the play, but on an individual level, Bosa showed off his tremendous IQ and awareness by not pursuing the run fake.
Bosa also had a huge impact on one of the most important plays of this game. Atlanta faced a third and two from just outside the 49ers' 2-yard line late in the fourth quarter. Ryan drops back into a three-step drop but is forced to step up in the pocket as Bosa and Samson Ebukam crashed in from their respective edge spots.
Once again, Bosa displayed immaculate pass rushing technique, showing off his elite ability to win with his hands. This is as good as it gets folks, and Bosa does this week after week at the highest level the sport has to offer.
Now let’s get into the big-time splash plays made by Bosa in this game that actually were reflected in the traditional box score. None bigger than what came with 13:53 remaining in the third quarter. The 49ers led 17-10, and Atlanta was facing a third and eight from their own 42-yard line. Bosa gets a one-on-one with McGary on the right side and pushes both hands into the chest of the Falcons' right tackle, knocking him off his base and giving Bosa a free path to Ryan.
As Ryan attempts to escape the pocket, Bosa tracks him down from behind and strips the football while bringing Ryan down. The fumble is then recovered by linebacker Fred Warner, giving the 49ers offense possession of the ball inside the Atlanta 40-yard line.
That drive ended in a touchdown that put the 49ers up 24-10, giving them a double-digit lead that they would maintain for the remainder of this game. Bosa was a technician in this game, but what makes this rep special is the way he won this matchup with the raw power that was coupled with his hand placement while driving into the chest plate of McGary.
It also showed Bosa’s relentless motor, something he doesn’t get nearly enough recognition for. The momentum shift from this turnover was something Atlanta could never fully recover from in this game.
Bosa’s ability as a pass rusher is well documented and well respected, but one area he doesn’t receive enough credit for is the work he does while defending the run. Bosa is among the league's best in slowing down opponents' rushing attacks, and he had a handful of plays in this game that demonstrated just how elite he is against the run.
With 9:29 remaining in the second quarter, the Falcons had a first and ten from their own 48-yard line. Atlanta comes out in a single back set and runs directly at Bosa on the right side of the offensive line.
Bosa flat out overpowers McGary at the point of engagement, so much so that he knocks the right tackle off his base and entirely out of the rushing lane he was blocking in. Bosa then fills the gap Patterson is attempting to run through and brings down the Falcons' running back behind the line of scrimmage for a tackle for loss.
Look how effortless Bosa makes this play look. It should not be this easy to toss aside a 6”8 305-pound lineman, and Bosa not only does that but wraps up one of the most difficult backs in the league to tackle in Patterson. Watch this again from the end zone angle.
Even on the plays where he wasn’t the primary defender engaging with the ball carrier, he demonstrated an elite fit his run gaps and honored his responsibilities in the run game. Like this play for example, when he eliminates off the cut-back angle with a strong backside pursuit from the strong side of the field, before assisting to bring the ball carrier down.
This performance was an all-around masterpiece from one of the best defensive players in the sport. Again, what really made this particular game stand out above the rest was how Bosa wore down this Falcons offense mentally and physically over the course of this matchup.
By the end of this game, Atlanta’s offensive line simply resorted to blatantly holding Bosa as nearly everything they tried to that point had proven to be ineffective against the superstar pass rusher. As this game wore on, it appeared that the Falcons' offensive line had simply had enough, with multiple reps that saw them hold and place illegal hands to the face while attempting to block Bosa.
Watch how McGary holds Bosa on this second down rep with 7:54 remaining in the fourth quarter.
You can even see the way Bosa throws his hands up, looking for any kind of explanation from the nearest official for the lack of a holding call on this play.
Bosa’s final tally in this game was nine pressures, one sack, one forced fumble, and a tackle for loss. This performance truly had everything and magnified what makes Bosa one of the most valuable players at any position in the entire sport.
Stay tuned for number three on the list, coming soon.
Here is the current list to date: