Much like he wouldn’t when given a clear path to an opposing quarterback, San Francisco 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa didn’t hesitate Monday night when he was asked what the ceiling for this Niners defense can be.
“I think it’s best in the league,” Bosa said. “That’s kind of our mindset every year, and this year we have the personnel to do it. Not that we haven’t in the past, but just all three levels are elite players.”
Given what the Niners’ defense did to the NFC West rival Los Angeles Rams in Monday night’s 24-9 win — on top of what it has accomplished through the season’s first four weeks — Bosa’s belief is backed by plenty of evidence.
The Niners have won seven consecutive regular-season games against the Rams, though they lost the most meaningful contest between the teams in January’s NFC Championship Game. It’s their longest win streak against the Rams since winning 17 consecutive regular-season contests from 1990 to ’98.
Against these Rams, who entered with a banged-up interior offensive line and have become increasingly dependent on receiver Cooper Kupp, the Niners didn’t quite pitch a shutout. But they came close.
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The Rams reached the red zone three times but settled for a field goal on each trip and, for the first time in quarterback Matthew Stafford’s 25 starts since arriving in Los Angeles in 2021, the Rams did not score an offensive touchdown.
Bosa and his teammates were all over Stafford for most of the game, racking up 17 pressures (second most since Stafford became a Ram) and sacking him seven times. Bosa accounted for two sacks and nine pressures, as he leads the league in both categories with six and 23, respectively.
The Rams managed just 257 yards of offense and averaged 3.5 yards per play. Even in a game that was within one score for most of the night, the Niners’ offense felt like the defense always had things under control.
“There was honestly a point, I think it was 14-9, and it’s not that we relaxed on offense — but you feel confident in the guys on defense,” quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said. “Those guys, I don’t watch much of it, but the couple plays I do see, it’s hell for the quarterback. I love having them on my side, hate going against them in practice, but it makes us better so it’s a good group over there. They’re tough.”
To put the finishing touches on the night’s performance, San Francisco’s defense also finally was able to generate some takeaways. Last week, Bosa and linebacker Fred Warner lamented the lack of turnovers (they Niners had one total in their two losses) and said that would be the next step for the defense to make the leap from good to great.
Emerging second-year safety Talanoa Hufanga delivered one of those at just the right time, picking off a Stafford screen pass and returning it 52 yards for a touchdown with 6:27 to go to extend San Francisco’s lead.
It was the Niners’ fourth pick-six in the past six regular-season meetings with the Rams, as they’ve had at least one in each of the past four seasons.
“That was the difference,” Warner said. “It was a tight game all the way through, we had played decent defense and held them out of the end zone, but we knew that in order to take it and win the game, we had to get the ball and we did.”
Fittingly, defensive end Samson Ebukam put the game away with 1:58 to play with the team’s seventh sack, forcing Stafford to fumble as defensive end Kerry Hyder Jr. recovered.
And while Monday’s performance might have been the most complete for the Niners’ defense, it was just the latest in a string of dominant performances. Through four weeks, San Francisco is first in the NFL in points allowed per game (11.5), yards per game (234.5, tied with Buffalo), sacks per dropback (10%) and yards per play (3.81), among other categories.
All of that for a group that is expecting starting free safety Jimmie Ward to return from a hamstring injury this week and has cornerback Jason Verrett returning soon from a knee injury.
“I don’t think they have given up 20 points in a game so far this year,” tight end George Kittle said. “It means as long as we score 21 points a game we are going to win some football games. It is just on us to put points on the board and hold on to the football.”
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