The 49ers season is undeniably off to a rocky start. Sitting at 2-3 coming out of their Bye Week, the Niners are far from Super Bowl contenders and barely relevant inside the NFC West. But, of course, there's plenty of time for that to change, with 12 regular-season games remaining on their schedule, but it will take some significant changes to get there.
Despite all the things that have gone wrong this season for the 49ers, there have been several positive developments. Several players have stood out from Nick Bosa's return from a torn ACL to Deebo Samuel's explosive start. With that in mind, it's worth considering some less obvious positives from the season's first five games.
DeMeco Ryans has lived up to the hype as defensive coordinator
With head coach Kyle Shanahan dedicated to the 49ers' offense, the defensive coordinator has the second most important job on the coaching staff. When 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh became the head coach of the New York Jets last offseason, it created a massive hole in the coaching staff.
Luckily for the franchise, they had one of the hottest young defensive assistants already on their staff in DeMeco Ryans. There were still relatively new to coaching, though. So there were reasons to wonder how Ryans would handle being the 49ers defensive play-caller. It turns out quite well.
Ryans had to scramble to scheme around a depleted secondary after losing his top cornerback in the season's first game. Some opponents have exposed that weakness, but Saleh had similar struggles throughout his tenure. The 49ers shut down Kyler Murray and the Arizona Cardinals offense better than anyone else this season and have helped keep the team in games despite offensive struggles.
Mitch Wishnowsky has been one of the best punters in the NFL
It's never a great sign when one of the standout performances on a team comes on special teams, but 49ers punter Mitch Wishnowsky has emerged as one of the best punters in the NFL.
Wishnowsky's performance does not stand out by most standard punting statistics. He ranks 17th in the league in average punt yards (46.0) and 12th in average net punt yards (41.7). However, all punts are not created equally. The 49ers' offense has rarely forced Wishnowsky to punt from deep in their own territory, which has limited his ability to increase his average.
It's not how far a punt travels but where it forces opposing teams' offenses to start that matters most. Wishnowsky has pinned opponents inside their own 20 at the second-highest rate in the NFL this season (63.2%) and is one of just three punters to have done so in more than half of their punts (Johnny Hekker and Sam Martin). While field position has probably helped Wishnowsky slightly, it's easy to see how much better he has been at pinning opponents deep alongside punters who are averaging comparable net yards per punt.
Where Wishnowsky Stands Out
Arik Armstead is playing like it's 2019 again
While Wishnowsky's notable play may not significantly impact the 49ers' win-loss record, Arik Armstead is undoubtedly one of the most critical pieces of the team's defense. Armstead has been an above-average defensive lineman for most of his seven-year career. Still, the 49ers were betting on him sustaining elite production when they signed him to a five-year, $85 million extension and traded DeForest Buckner to the Colts.
Before this season, though, he had only produced at a top-tier level in 2019, when he recorded 62 quarterback pressures and 11 sacks. But, after his production dipped last season, he's once again playing like one of the best defensive linemen in the league through the first five games of the 49ers' schedule.
While Armstead has only recorded one sack this season, he's generated 18 quarterback pressures and 15 hurries on just 148 pass-rushing snaps, per PFF. Besides 2019, Armstead has never recorded more than 41 pressures or 30 hurries in one season. He's on pace to easily surpass those numbers and match his 2019 production.
Armstead's 89.4 PFF grade is the 10th-highest among all qualified defensive linemen and ranks him just above teammate Nick Bosa (who ranks 11th with an 89.2 grade). Bosa's return has been pivotal for the 49ers' defensive line this season, but Armstead has quietly been one of the best linemen in the NFL as well.