As winners of five of their last six contests, there is plenty of credit to go around for the midseason resurgence the 49ers have experienced since falling to 3-5 after a Week 9 loss to the Arizona Cardinals.
The offense has been more efficient, the secondary has cut back on the back-breaking penalties, and the offensive line has maintained a high level of play despite losing its starting right tackle. But one unit’s production has truly stood out above the rest in recent weeks.
The 49ers' defensive line has been on an absolute tear as of late, fresh off of a game against the Atlanta Falcons that saw them pressure Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan an astounding 33 times. This performance also generated three sacks (one of which was a strip-sack by Nick Bosa that was ultimately recovered by Fred Warner) as well as 6 QB hits. They absolutely bullied the Falcons in the trenches and brought back fond memories of a dominant unit that fueled a super bowl run just two years ago.
This came just a week after the 49ers pass rush wreaked havoc on Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, who was the victim of a unit that generated 27 pressures, five sacks, and 3 QB hits. For the majority of the game, the 49ers' tenacious effort upfront was able to mask a clear weakness within their secondary, as the cornerback spot opposite Josh Norman was clearly vulnerable as a rookie (Ambry Thomas) made their first start.
Even in their crushing last-minute loss to Seattle, the 49ers pass rush handled business against a sub-par Seahawks offensive line. For the second time this season, they kept the 49ers in the game by keeping Russell Wilson and the Seattle passing attack at bay for long stretches of the game. Despite the defeat on the scoreboard, the 49ers still logged 24 pressures, five sacks, and 4 QB hits in this game.
To put all of these numbers into context, here are the 49ers per-game averages over their last three contests
- Pressures - 28
- Sacks - 4.3
- QB Hits - 4.3
This is an extremely successful amount of production from a pass-rushing standpoint in any game by all measures. The driving force behind this dominant showing in recent weeks has been star edge rusher Nick Bosa, who has logged 6+ pressures in all three contests and averaged 8 per game over that span. Bosa also has four sacks over this span, truly defining what it means to be a game-wrecking force despite the attention paid to him by opposing teams.
But Bosa isn’t doing it all by himself. In each of the 49ers' last three games, they have had at least three different players register 4+ pressures in the same game. This balanced production has caused all kinds of problems for opposing offenses and is finally demonstrating the incredible depth that it appeared this unit would have heading into this season.
Over the last three games, each of these defensive linemen had at least one game that saw them record multiple pressures:
Nick Bosa / Arden Key / Kentavius Street / Arik Armstead / Kevin Givens / Samson Ebukam /Charles Omenihu / DJ Jones
What makes this even more impressive is that the names listed above account for eight out of the nine defensive linemen who saw pass-rushing snaps over that three-game span. Getting that level of production eight players deep on a defensive line is a coach's dream, and this unit has been delivering in a huge way as of late. But let’s take an even further look.
Bosa, Key, Ebukam, Armstead, and Jones each had at least two games over this span with multiple pressures. This particular group has been beyond dependable, giving the 49ers' defense the requisite push upfront they are so heavily reliant on. If we dive even deeper, there are three players who have shown out in each of these three contests.
Bosa, Armstead, and Key each had multiple pressures in all three contests, and it is no coincidence that those three happen to be the team leaders in pressures in that order. I mentioned in my last article how the 49ers had found tremendous success by utilizing Key as a pass rusher on the interior in recent weeks. A role Key will look to continue thriving in.
I do want to mention Armstead quickly as well, as he is a player who never seems to get his due credit based simply on people's infatuations with sack numbers. Part of what makes Armstead so valuable is his ability to seamlessly move from the interior to the edge and vice versa, something he has done admirably this season. I personally don’t like using sacks to measure pass-rushing production as they are far more reliant on outside factors than they are indicative of individual performance as a pass rusher.
This year Armstead has registered 3+ pressures in half of the 49ers games and has logged pressures in all but two games this season (Seattle Week 4 and Minnesota Week 12, the latter of which was the worst game of the season from a pass-rushing productivity standpoint for the entire 49ers defense). He is an extremely versatile player and one whose contributions often don’t reflect in the box score but are readily apparent to anyone who turns on the game film.
So to put a bow on things, the main point I wanted to make here was that the 49ers' defensive line is appearing to be firing on all cylinders at just the right time. This unit is playing by far its best football of the season with three weeks remaining until the playoffs, something that you rarely hear about a defensive line given the wear and tear of any NFL season, particularly one that has an added 17th game.
The ability to go nine players deep with a rotation of impact pass rushers combined with the physicality and dominant run game that the 49ers possess makes them a team that nobody will want to see come January.
That style of football has a decades-long track record of translating into playoff success, and if the 49ers can handle business over the next few weeks to secure a spot in the playoffs, look out because they have the potential to be as dangerous as any of the teams that end up in the tournament.