— Ryan Gorcey (@RyanGorcey) October 8, 2019
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Outstretched fists stacked on top of one another, Nick Bosa took two big steps, swung his arms back and forth, then plunged an imaginary flagpole into the Levi’s Stadium turf.
With four seconds left in the first half against the Cleveland Browns on Monday, Bosa, the 49ers’ rookie defensive end, had just tripped up Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, forcing an incompletion. He then mimicked the taunt Mayfield made as Oklahoma’s quarterback two years ago at Ohio Stadium, against Bosa’s Ohio State Buckeyes. “He had that coming,” Bosa said.
With two sacks, five quarterback hurries, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery, Bosa had a breakout game in San Francisco’s 31-3 win, the 49th Monday Night Football win in franchise history. With a dominant performance against a projected playoff team, the 49ers are 4-0 for the first time since 1990, and are among the last two undefeated teams in the NFL.
“Other teams struggle with these guys, and we had them 31-3,” said cornerback Richard Sherman. “That’s from Pro Bowl, All-Pro talent up front … Bosa should be a rookie in the Pro Bowl this year, and it shouldn’t even be close.”
Having played just 56% of defensive snaps in the first three weeks, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 draft spent the bye week healing up and practicing Mayfield’s sacrelige against the Buckeyes in his room. He told former Ohio State teammate and current Cincinnati Bengal defensive end Sam Hubbard what he was planning.
“I told him I was going to do it, and he said, ‘Hey, I was going to do it when we played him,’” Bosa said. “We completely dominated. That’s all that really matters.”
Not normally a trash-talker, Bosa taunted the former Sooner from the first drive on, sing-songing his name across the line.
“Ba-ker! Ba-ker! You good? C’mon, pick it up,” Bosa chanted. “We want a challenge.”
On the second drive, Bosa’s pressure forced Mayfield into a hurried throw over the middle of the field, where Sherman was waiting for an interception, the first of two Mayfield threw on the day. Bosa sliced through double teams, tallied two tackles for loss and got up after a pancake block to recover a fumble. He was every bit the defensive catalyst the 49ers had hoped.
The Browns were held to just 180 yards of total offense, with Nick Chubb rushing for 87 yards on 16 carries (37 yards on one run) and Odell Beckham Jr. catching two balls for 27 yards. Mayfield was sacked four times and hurried eight.
“He was panicking, double clutching, rolling back and forth,” Bosa said. “We had him rattled all game.”
Cleveland — despite some stinkers already this season — looked to have rounded into the 10-to-11-win form many predicted in last week’s 40-25 win over the Ravens, evening their record at 2-2. Mayfield loudly complained this week that pundits were throwing his team “in the trash” because of their slow start. Bosa felt his team, too, was being discounted. Coming into Monday, San Francisco’s previous three opponents had gone just 3-12, somewhat tarnishing their 3-0 start. He bristled at being considered a “fake undefeated team.”
The 49ers defensive front — which already ranked first in the NFL in rushing touchdowns allowed (0), big plays allowed (12), passing first-downs allowed (26), interceptions, yards per game and defensive passer rating — teed off on Mayfield, holding him to 8-of-22 passing for a career-low 100 yards.
After seeing Mayfield take the 49ers’ pounding, Browns head coach Freddie Kitchens said, “They are what their record is.”
Cleveland’s first five drives ended in a punt, a pick, a punt, a fumble and a field goal, before the Browns finally started driving late in the second quarter.
The 49ers needed no fewer than three touchdown-saving tackles from Jimmie Ward to keep the Browns out of the end zone, when Mayfield, at the six-yard line, delivered his third turnover of the day. Just-activated Antonio Calloway batted a low goal-line pass back up into the air twice, and K’Waun Williams was there to snag it for a 49-yard return. San Francisco converted, scoring on a 19-yard run by Tevin Coleman, who finished with 97 yards on 16 carries.
The defense allowed head coach Kyle Shanahan to open up the playbook and call end-arounds, reverses and a tight end carry, as San Francisco ran 40 times for 275 yards and piled up 446 yards of offense, averaging 6.3 yards per play. The first play from scrimmage was an 83-yard Matt Breida touchdown, during which he hit 22.3 mph — the fastest sprint speed for any NFL ball carrier in three years. With 10 yards to go in his scoring sprint, he turned around and waved to safety Damarious Randall.
“We talked about throwing the first punch before the game,” said quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.
Two drives later, San Francisco went to Breida again for a five-yard wheel that gave him two touchdowns on his first three touches of the evening. He finished with 114 yards on 11 carries.
San Francisco added a 22-yard scoring strike from Jimmy Garoppolo to tight end George Kittle to open the second half, but only scored once more — on Robbie Gould’s only field goal make on four tries (including two misses and a block) — before their fifth takeaway of the day, when Marcell Harris stripped the dynamic Odell Beckham Jr. on a punt return with seven minutes left to effectively seal the game.
Mayfield was taken out with five minutes remaining.
Said Bosa: ”He didn’t say one word back.”
After the game, Bosa waved and planted an actual 49ers flag in the end zone.
When Bosa returned to the locker room, he told defensive end Dee Ford that he had a lot of room to improve, despite becoming the only 49ers player in the last 25 years with 2.0 sacks, a forced fumble and fumble recovery in a single game.
“That’s the baller in him,” Ford said. “I see what he can do. He will have a break-out game. Tonight was a level up for him. I feel like he’s a game-wrecker.”