SANTA CLARA, Calif. - During training camp, NaVorro Bowman could set his own schedule.
Coming off a rigorous rehab process to get his surgically repaired left knee back into shape, Bowman could take days off at his choosing when soreness persisted. New head coach Jim Tomsula allowed Bowman, and others dealing with injuries, to take ample time to get healthy and into the best shape possible for the regular season.
But now that the regular season is here, Bowman doesn't have that luxury. After missing a year and a half of football, he's back in the whirlwind of the 16-game schedule, which doesn't offer the same flexibility as training camp.
In order to play well, Bowman says he has to practice well first.
"I’m a visual-type of guy. I like to get out there and see it, how it’s going to happen," Bowman said. "I know we went against scout team, but I can put (the opponents') athletes in those spots and get the feeling better that way. I try to keep my intensity up during the week. If I need a day or two, I’ll take that. That rarely comes, man."
Bowman missed all of last season while recovering from his ACL and MCL tears in his left knee from Jan. 2014. During his recovery, he spent four days on the active roster in December, making a brief return to the practice field before being placed on injured reserve, pushing his return back to the start of 2015.
"I really enjoy practicing. I tell the coaches that all the time, that if I can go, I want to go," Bowman said. "I understand trying to watch and count my reps and things like that, but I like to go out there and put the work in just like everybody else. The process, actually intensifies, because I have to be ready on game day. There’s no, 'I have another week, or two weeks, or a month.' It’s time to go."
With Bowman back in the middle of the defense, the 49ers held the Vikings in their 20-3 win to 248 yards of offense, including 31 yards rushing on 10 carries to Adrian Peterson. Bowman finished with eight tackles and a sack in his return to the field, which was also his first regular season game at Levi's Stadium.
"(Bowman's) leadership has been outstanding, but that’s a tough journey back," defensive coordinator Eric Mangini said. "And there’s a lot of steps that you have to take. There’s a lot of boxes that you have to tick off to get back to playing a full game the way that he did at the level that he played it at, and it’s impressive."
One of those steps included losing the brace Bowman wore on the knee throughout the offseason and during the majority of training camp. Bowman said during the spring he would rather light the brace on fire than wear it on the field.
Bowan had the brace on when he made his preseason debut against the Cowboys, registering three tackles on his only three plays. Then, he went without it the following week in Denver, when he had a game-high nine tackles and two sacks in his final preseason tuneup.
From that point on, Bowman's resembled the player he was before the injury, when he earned three consecutive first-team All-Pro nominations. But he's still gaining confidence in the knee, and isn't back to All-Pro form yet.
"I’m just taking my time with it. Not trying to go out there and do too much. Just lead these guys. Make sure I get those sets and get everybody on the right page. I’m just enjoying it like that," Bowman said.
When asked about Bowman's impact in his return, 49ers head coach Jim Tomsula was quick to point out Bowman isn't the only player making their comebacks after missing extensive time with injuries last season.
Defensive linemen Glenn Dorsey and Ian Williams were back in San Francisco's lineup after missing 23 games combined in 2014. Dorsey missed the season when he tore a biceps tendon, while Williams suffered a fracture in his lower leg for the second straight year.
"There’s guys here that have overcome some stuff. And you talk about surgeries and things like that, get back on that football field," Tomsula said. "They’re all together in that way. But, obviously, Bo’s a dynamic football player and he’s just, he’s done a great job. But, so have those other guys."
In Mangini's new blitz-heavy scheme, the 49ers disguised the defense well before the snap, sending pressures from different angles at second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, leading to five sacks, including one from Bowman and safeties Antoine Bethea and Jaquiski Tartt.
With Roethlisberger, the 12-year veteran and two-time Super Bowl champ, ahead, the 49ers are expecting a much more difficult task. They plan on keeping the pressure on the Roethlisberger in order to dictate where he goes with the ball.
"It makes us know that we have to (keep pressuring the quarterback)," Bowman said. "The coaches are challenging us learn all these things and execute it. Disguise is the main thing. That’s a high level of playing football. That just speaks volumes of the team, of us taking that challenge, practicing, getting on the same page, all 11 guys, and going out there and executing."
Chris Biderman is the Editor-in-Chief of Niners Digest and covers the 49ers from their headquarters in Santa Clara. Chris has been writing about the team since the spring of 2013. The Ohio State alum received his Journalism degree in 2011 and has been working in sports media since 2008. Chris, a Santa Rosa, Calif. native, is also a contributor to the Associated Press covering sports throughout the Bay Area. You can follow Chris on Twitter here.
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