SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) Jim Tomsula has said it over and over again: He reserves the right to back off NaVorro Bowman if he senses the star middle linebacker might need a break.

On Sunday night, Tomsula finally let Bowman go - for one quick defensive series, at least. Bowman knew he had five plays max.

And contrary to how little a player's at-bats a month into the baseball season might show, this small football sample size told plenty. Bowman is back all right.

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''If I had played longer,'' he joked following his three-tackle, three-snap outing. ''It was huge. I could feel the meter just rising on those plays.''

Anybody not in their seat for the early moments of San Francisco's 23-6 whipping of Dallas on Sunday night missed quite a performance by Bowman as he returned to game action for the first time since a devastating left knee injury in the NFC championship game at Seattle in January 2014.

''I was glad we got that three-and-out, because I could see him, the momentum was going,'' Tomsula said Monday. ''I'd have had to call timeout to get him out of there.''

Bowman acknowledged he was emotional during warmups at Levi's Stadium seeing the fans, and that helped get him going.

''I missed it,'' he said. ''My adrenalin was rushing. It felt good, just to face someone else, just go out there and make some plays.''

Who could blame him for having some added energy given it took 19 months to get back, far longer than he had hoped. He missed all of last year recovering from tears in the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his knee, and he had surgery to repair the ACL.

Bowman can sense that Tomsula, even if cautious, understands his daunting journey back to health.

''I wanted to be out there,'' Bowman said. ''We have a long road ahead of us. Just want to be smart about it. I knew I had five plays so I wanted to make the best of it.''

He will get a new challenge this week in the altitude of Colorado, something Tomsula believes will be good for his team.

The 49ers will hold a short practice Tuesday before flying to Denver, where they have joint workouts scheduled with the Broncos on Wednesday and Thursday before the teams play Saturday night.

Nobody seemed surprised by Bowman's explosive performance Sunday night, especially after seeing his athletic spin move on Day 1 of training camp back on Aug. 1 in which he blitzed and got past Marcus Martin.

''Everyone here has seen how hard he's worked to get back and how hard he's been going in training camp to make sure he's been ready for this,'' quarterback Colin Kaepernick said. ''And to see him step out there and be his old self, to me, it's what we've seen all training camp.''

Bowman is still adjusting to a bulky brace he must wear to keep the training staff happy.

He insists his instincts are as strong as ever, in part because of his hard work in the meeting room even when he wasn't able to play.

''You just want to stay in it. You don't want to seem like you got it all, you always try to better yourself,'' he said. ''That's what the greats do. They find ways to learn, different ways, not just as a player. That's what the year off gave me. I just wanted to show that I'm a student of the game, not just a player.''

Notes: TE Vance McDonald and WR Chuck Jacobs sustained ankle sprains and will need a couple of days off. LB Desmond Bishop will undergo a procedure on an injured hand near the thumb after being hurt during the game, Tomsula said. S Craig Dahl strained his back and DL Tank Carradine strained a leg. ... Expected back on the practice field this week are LB Michael Wilhoite, WR Bruce Ellington and DL Glenn Dorsey.

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