This may sound obvious, especially for a team that spends as much capital and effort on the position, but the 49ers’ defensive line is really, really good. We knew it all the way back in the preseason when the position looked so log-jammed that one or more good players might have to hit the bricks, and we still know it after 18 weeks of regular-season games. It’s the team’s philosophy, their identity, and their North Star.
They’ve absolutely carried a defense that has trotted out rookies and Josh Norman at cornerback on a week-to-week basis by supplying a steady stream of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Even more impressively, given their early-season struggles in this area, they transformed and improved into the league’s second-best run defense, allowing only 103.5 yards per game.
Just how much did the Niners struggle stopping the run early? Well, they allowed over 100 yards rushing in seven of their first eight games and 94 in the other. They’ve only given up over 100 yards once in the next ten games, with a handful of games in the 60s and below.
The injury to Javon Kinlaw robbed the defense of a space-eater that could stop the inside run, and those early game totals show how much they missed his presence. It wasn’t until around Week 8 when DeMeco Ryans adjusted to kick Arik Armstead inside full time, that things began to change.
Taking advantage of Armstead’s versatility, born from his speed and length, has paid huge dividends. Most recently, he notched two and a half sacks against the Rams, including the one that prematurely ended the Rams’ hopes of winning in regulation. His impact rippled well beyond his penchant for getting after the quarterback, though.
Armstead immediately stabilized the interior of the line alongside uber-athletic nose tackle D.J. Jones. Jones has always brought a lot to the field, as long as he manages to stay on it. This season will be the first in his career that he suits up for every game. He previously topped out at 11 in 2020 while missing the last month and playoffs in 2019 when he was placed on the IR after he suffered an ankle injury against the Saints.
Jones credits his conditioning for his newfound availability, and it clearly shows up on the field in other ways, too. His most memorable play of the season was sniffing out a fake field goal and chasing down the ball carrier, doing his best impression of a linebacker. Not to mention his level of explosion off the line that blows up plays in the backfield on a regular basis.
The combined run-stopping prowess of Armstead and Jones slammed the door on the inside run game for teams, and that continued success will be paramount, starting with the Cowboys. They are a more favorable matchup, as they’ve certainly not run the ball as they used to in 2021 but still have the pieces necessary to try.
ESPN's Run-Stop Win Rate Leaders, DTs:— Akash Anavarathan (@akashanav) January 4, 2022
1. D.J. Jones, SF, 47%
2. Christian Wilkins, MIA, 46%
3. Arik Armstead, SF, 43%
Jones and Armstead are big reasons why the #49ers have the NFL's 2nd-best rushing defense, per DVOA.
As for rushing the passer, Nick Bosa picked up right where he left off before his ACL tear and re-established himself as one of the game’s most talented and productive edge players. The should’ve-been All-Pro has been double-teamed more than anyone, yet still managed to rack up 15.5 sacks and lead the league with 21 tackles for loss. His game-wrecking tendencies completely alter opposing game plans and open lanes to the quarterback for his teammates.
However, the Niners struggled to find a worthy running mate on the other edge early in the season. Dee Ford returned briefly from the back injury that ended his previous season before it flared up again and tanked his 2021, as well. Seeing Ford’s availability might be precarious, San Francisco signed Samson Ebukam as an insurance policy/low-risk flier.
The converted 3-4 linebacker has all the physical traits you’d want from an edge rusher who is tasked with getting upfield fast. The transition might have been more difficult than expected, as he brutally underperformed the first 12 weeks, contributing 14 pressures and 1 sack in those games. Well, things must have clicked because down the stretch, he’s come on strong with 4 sacks and 22 pressures in his last five games.
Perhaps the biggest surprise on the line has been Arden Key, who the Niners inked to a one-year deal for one million dollars after the Raiders unceremoniously cut ties with this offseason. As a freshman at LSU, Key immediately turned heads, and many thought he’d be a first-round pick, but off the field, issues dropped his stock, and, even worse, he ended up with the Raiders.
Since trading the silver and black for red and gold, Key has been able to tap into his potential and flash his dominance. He’s become a reliable disrupter on the inside in relief or on obvious passing downs, finishing the regular season with 6.5 sacks and 17 QB hits. That level of production will earn him a huge pay bump after playing on a prove-it deal. Prove it he did, and, hopefully, the Niners can find the cash to extend him.
The most important factor, besides the very fact that the Niners assembled this group of defensive line Avengers, is that they are all peaking at the exact right time. In a must-win game against the Rams, the line absolutely harassed Matthew Stafford, grinding the offense to a halt when the 49ers most desperately needed it. Armstead, Bosa, Ebukam, Key, Jones, and Kentavius Street, who’s also been dependable, all registered three pressures each.
Arik Armstead had an incredible game against the Rams— Jordan Elliott (@splash_cousin) January 11, 2022
He was credited with 2.5 sacks on the day, including this one that forced OT by preventing the Rams from moving the ball into FG range pic.twitter.com/3Q3xjYseHe
That’s an unbelievable amount of output, especially considering that the Rams are no slouches at offensive line, ranking seventh overall in the PFF ratings as a group. Think of that as just a warm-up, as they’ll now be tasked with the team at the top of the list in the Cowboys with Zack Martin, La’el Collins, and Tyron Smith.
Making Dak Prescott uncomfortable and preventing him from attacking the Niners’ vulnerable corners deep might just be the game’s biggest key and, frankly, the key to a deeper run for this team, period. Thankfully, if there is ever a group that you could count on for just that, it’s this one.