Quartet of unheralded pass rushers will need to pick up the slack if Bosa misses Week 1 in Pittsburgh
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — It’s time to consider the possibility that the 49ers will play their Week 1 opener in Pittsburgh without their best player on Sunday.
Edge rusher Nick Bosa is still unsigned and looking for a contract extension that would likely make him the highest-paid non-quarterback in the NFL at $32 million per season or more, though it’s unclear if the 49ers are willing to go that high in terms of a multi-year deal.
The 49ers’ grief has progressed from “unconcerned” throughout the offseason to “barely worried” at the start of camp to “OK, now this is serious” as training concluded.
And, while it’s still possible that Bosa will sign an extension and play in Pittsburgh on Sunday, it’s unclear how much he’ll play given the amount of high-tech training he’s received in recent months.
Whether Bosa plays a few snaps or none at all, it’s a call to action for four outside edge rushers whose career numbers in rushing the passer aren’t in the same league: second-year player Drake Jackson, free agent signee Clelin Ferrell, veteran Kerry Hyder Jr., and free agent Austin Bryant.
Jackson, the quartet’s most explosive pass rusher, flashed early as a rookie, then faded into the background and was finally inactive when the 49ers advanced to the playoffs. In terms of training and diet, Jackson remade his body during the offseason.
“With or without Bosa, I feel we’ll do well,” Jackson said on Monday. “If he’s not there, we’ll miss him.” But, as much as we want him back, we can’t just ponder and wait. We have to do our jobs.”
Bosa won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award after recording 18 1/2 sacks in 16 games, or one sack every 40.3 snaps. His 43 career sacks occurred every 56.6 snaps. Both figures equate to one sack in the course of a typical game.
Here’s a look at how 49ers edge players who would fill in for Bosa in his absence (or for limited time) have sacked the quarterback in their careers:
In 87 games, Hyder played 2,853 snaps and had 51 sacks. There is one sack for every 135.8 snaps.
Ferrell played 1,864 snaps and had 10 sacks in 58 games. There is one sack for every 186.4 snaps.
Bryant had 989 snaps. In 33 games, he had four sacks. Every 247.3 snaps, there is one sack.
Jackson played 315 snaps and had three sacks in 15 games. Every 105 snaps, there is one sack.
It’s obvious that without Bosa, the Pittsburgh offense and quarterback Kenny Pickett would have far less to worry about. Meanwhile, T.J. Watt, Pittsburgh’s star edge rusher, will go after Brock Purdy hard.
Ferrell isn’t getting caught up in a numbers game after already being saddled with the pressure of being the Raiders’ draft pick that was supposed to replace Khalil Mack, and he’s taken to defensive line coach Kris Kocurek’s tough-love approach.
“Man, I’m feeling great,” Ferrell exclaimed. “Being with a new team and in a new environment has been extremely beneficial to me thus far.” I believe that the way we do things here makes it very simple for someone to focus on the right things.
“This is a team, there aren’t a lot of star players, but we do a really good job of keeping the main thing the main thing and not focusing on outside noise.”
Jackson stated that his strategy will not change, Bosa or no Bosa.
“This was going to happen either way,” Jackson admitted. “If he’s not here, we’ll have to step up regardless.” We can’t just think about him and wait for him to return. We have to do our jobs.”
While the emphasis will be on the edge rushers, keep in mind that the 49ers signed free agent Javon Hargrave to a four-year, $84 million contract in the offseason in order to collapse the pocket from the inside. Combine that with Arik Armstead staying healthy throughout the offseason and training camp, and the Steelers offensive line isn’t going to get a day off.
The more Hargrave and Armstead press Pickett up the middle, the more likely it is that an edge rusher will break free and join the party.
Then there’s defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, who has a reputation for putting more pressure on linebackers and defensive backs than his predecessor, DeMeco Ryans. Blitzing candidates include linebackers Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw, safeties Talanoa Hufanga and Ji’Ayr Brown, and nickel corner Isaiah Oliver.
“I think it would be more aggressive,” Greenlaw said of Wilks’ scheme without Bosa. “It depends on the feel of the game and how he’s feeling.” If he wants to call them early, I’m sure he’ll put some pressure on them. But it’s a feeling if he thinks we can attack them in our normal three-deep, two-high formation. We don’t yet have a game plan.”
Wilks will almost certainly have three backup plans: one with Bosa, one without Bosa, and one with Bosa playing only a few snaps.
During a national conference call last week, CBS analyst and former three-time NFL Player of the Year J.J. Watt (the brother of Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt) said he didn’t think Bosa would need much time to adjust once he signed.
“I’m in charge, so I can rip myself here.” “We’re not the sharpest tools in the shed,” admitted J.J. Watt. “They literally form a line and say, ‘Go get the football.'” I’m not required to understand coverages. I don’t have to remember multiple assignments, and the playbook is basically ‘Go get the ball, big guy.’ I think he’ll be fine out there.”