On a team with as much blue-chip talent as the 49ers possess, it can become easy to get caught up in all of the individual talent and storylines surrounding this team, which can have the unintended consequence of overlooking the collective efforts of an entire position group as a whole.
While it’s important to acknowledge the individual greatness of the All-Pro talent that is littering the 49ers roster, it’s even more important to remember that one thing above all else is, has been, and will continue to be, the engine that drives the success of this football team. The defensive line
Sunday’s win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was a humbling reminder that everything for this 49ers team starts up front with their ability to dominate in the trenches. Their ability to control games by decimating opponents at the line of scrimmage will ultimately define their ceiling as they push for a divisional title and a subsequent playoff run come January.
In their win over Tampa Bay, the 49ers were able to record six official quarterback hits on Tom Brady, but a quick review of the game film showed that there were plenty more reps where they either made contact or came close to doing so.
I don’t know that I could ever confidently say that Brady was “rattled” given his track record in this league, but it was evident how much his internal clock was sped up as he attempted to evade wave after wave of 49ers pass rushers bearing down on him.
The ability to pressure Brady and this Buccaneers' defense in high-leverage spots was a major key to victory in this game, as they thoroughly dominated the third down attempts when Brady dropped back to pass. Here were Brady’s numbers on the money down when he dropped back to pass in this game:
2.75 yards per attempt
Tampa Bay converted only 3 of the 12 third down attempts where Brady dropped back to pass in this game. What made it even more impressive was how they were able to limit Brady from moving the sticks early in this game, which in turn gave the offense time to build up an insurmountable lead that Tampa Bay never had a realistic chance to overcome.
Here are Brady’s numbers on the first six dropbacks he had on third down, which spanned from Tampa Bay’s opening possession through their first possession of the second half:
The 49ers had led 35-0 by the time Brady had the seventh attempt on third down.
What makes this 49er defensive line, so special in contrast to the other talented groups around the league is their ability to go nine players deep with starting-level talent. The 49ers' first line of reserves referred to as the “Bravo” unit by defensive line Kris Kocurek would be a formidable starting front four on a handful of teams around the NFL.
The 49ers flexed this depth in a major way on Sunday, as all nine of the defensive linemen who recorded a snap against Tampa Bay registered at least one pressure in the game. Seven of those nine recorded multiple pressures, but no one player recorded more than two. It was a balanced effort across the board and a perfect illustration of how this units greatest ability is their strength in numbers.
To highlight this collective effort, I put together some cut-ups of each of the nine defensive linemen who suited up on Sunday. Let’s start with the DPOY candidate.
What can’t this guy do? Every week it’s a joy watching the clinic Bosa puts on while wreaking havoc on opposing quarterbacks. But quarterbacks are not the only victims on Bosa’s rampages off the edge, the offensive linemen who stand in his way are a part of the collateral damage as well.
Watch what Bosa does to Buccaneers right tackle Josh Wells on this rep. This inside spin move from Bosa had Wells questioning everything in his life that led to this moment.
Nick Bosa put 72 in a blender with this inside spin move pic.twitter.com/E7jcLMaCPz— Jordan Elliott (@splash_cousin) December 13, 2022
Bosa has done significant damage with that inside spin move throughout the season, and he claimed yet another victim on this third down inside the red zone. While I could spend hours going on about the admiration I have for Bosa’s pass-rushing arsenal, the point of this piece is to highlight the collective effort of the group. So with that being said, let’s move on to the next player.
First off, some admitted bias on my end. Armstead is my favorite player to watch on this 49ers' defense due to the rare blend of size, power, and precision that he possesses. There are very few players in the NFL who are capable of completely wrecking a game the way Armstead can, and he has immediately made his presence felt despite the limited snaps since his return to action.
Part of what makes Armstead so special is his ability to create for others on the defensive line, particularly when he is involved in any kind of stunt action like he was on this play with Bosa I’m going to post below.
Armstead is able to hook the right guard with a rip move with his right arm, and then using only his left arm, drives the right tackle back before coming back with his right arm to get a hand on Brady as he releases this ball. It is a perfect encapsulation of the power, and precision Armstead possesses.
In awe of the power that Arik Armstead is able to generate when he rushes the passer— Jordan Elliott (@splash_cousin) December 13, 2022
Rip move with his right arm holds the RG during this twist with Bosa & then he puts the RT on skates with only his left arm engaging before landing the right arm on Brady as he releases the ball pic.twitter.com/Afi1fPZXfY
The pressure Armstead is able to generate through the interior will prove invaluable as the stakes get higher the later we get into the season. The raw power Armstead possesses to put a guard on skates like this could prove to be the difference come playoff time, as it was in the 49ers' win over the Packers in last year's divisional round.
The 49ers are loaded across the board but the the thing that truly makes them a contender is their ability to dominate in the trenches on both sides of the ball— Jordan Elliott (@splash_cousin) December 13, 2022
The floor has been there all year but ceiling for the defensive line was raised immensely upon the return of Armstead pic.twitter.com/3C5KRsJGv1
Ebukam is a fascinating player to watch week in and week out because aside from the talent he possesses, he also is a player who is constantly evolving as he adapts to the new role he took on when he joined the 49ers prior to last season.
Ebukam has not only embraced the challenges that come with essentially playing an entirely new position. He has flat out dominated them. Perhaps one of the best athletes on the team, Ebukam, and his explosive athletic traits off the edge have the power to impact plays even when he doesn’t bring the quarterback down.
On the Buccaneers' first possession of the second half, Ebukam was able to create a pressure off the right side that moved Brady off his spot in the pocket and forced an errant throw that Tashaun Gipson picked off.
Pressure from Samson Ebukam leads to an errant throw from Brady that is picked by Tashaun Gipson pic.twitter.com/0Wbv5u2qf5— Jordan Elliott (@splash_cousin) December 13, 2022
Ebukam had a pretty decent hit on Brady later in the game as well, using a rip move to beat the right tackle to his inside shoulder.
Speaking of hitting Brady, only one 49ers defensive lineman was able to do that more than once in this game, and that was...
Kerry Hyder Jr.
It’s easy to see why Hyder Jr. is a favorite of the ever-fervent Kocurek. Repeatedly we see Hyder Jr. having an effect on the outcome of a play based simply on pure hustle and an unrelenting determination until the whistle blows the play dead.
Hyder Jr. had a couple of really nice reps from a precision standpoint in this one as well, recording multiple pressures with an exceptional use of the long arm technique, one of which led to an interception by Dre Greenlaw as Brady let this ball go with Hyder Jr. bearing down on him.
Here is the pressure that led to the interception, as well as another fantastic rep utilizing the long arm earlier in the game.
Another fantastic long arm by Kerry Hyder Jr. pic.twitter.com/bvl1fge8S7— Jordan Elliott (@splash_cousin) December 13, 2022
Excellent use of the long arm by Kerry Hyder Jr. pic.twitter.com/FaZQuRYVI7— Jordan Elliott (@splash_cousin) December 12, 2022
Omenihu has been a lifesaver for this 49ers' defense this season and is a major reason why they were able to maintain their elite status despite the absence of Armstead for a large portion of this season.
What makes Omenihu so unique the raw strength he possesses for a player who has been more of a traditional edge rusher during his time in the NFL. This has allowed the 49ers to line him up on the interior and create favorable matchups for not only him but the defensive line as a whole.
The amount of agility and strength that is required to maintain balance through contact and drive with such tremendous force from a spot of low leverage like this is special and not something you see regularly from someone who plays on the edge.
So much to like on this rep from Charles Omenihu— Jordan Elliott (@splash_cousin) December 12, 2022
The balance/agility/strength required to stay in a position to recover and drive with such excessive force from a spot with low leverage
All comes back to having a motor that never stops pic.twitter.com/y2bWwPbHSY
Jackson might have only recorded one pressure in this game, but he made his impact felt way beyond that sole pressure that shows up in the box score.
I’ve written and talked at length about how impressive Jackson’s ball skills have been this season, and he continued that trend against Tampa Bay by recording his sixth batted ball of the season. That’s tied with George Karlaftis and Zach Allen for the most among any player in the NFL this season.
Drake Jackson’s 6th batted ball of the season, which is tied with Chiefs DE George Karlaftis for the league lead pic.twitter.com/0yi2BQHGIZ— Jordan Elliott (@splash_cousin) December 13, 2022
Jackson’s instinct for the football isn’t exclusive to the line of scrimmage, however, as evidenced by this rep I’ll post below. DeMeco Ryans dials up a sim pressure out of the 49ers' “lightning” package that has Jackson drop into coverage ten yards or so upfield. Watch how Jackson extends and nearly makes a play on this ball intended for Mike Evans.
Sim pressure out of the “lightning” package— Jordan Elliott (@splash_cousin) December 13, 2022
Drake Jackson showing off his athleticism dropping into coverage
I don’t know that I’ve seen a DL who has ball instincts like this since maybe JJ Watt?
Even 10 yards upfield Jackson is making plays on the ball. Incredible pic.twitter.com/BKgp5M1fwZ
Jackson is an exceptional athlete, and those traits were on display rushing the passer as well. On this rep, you can see Jackson win with a solid use of the scissor swipe as well as the natural bend he possesses off the edge.
Scissor swipe and some of that natural bend on display from Drake Jackson pic.twitter.com/IllMTmFpp7— Jordan Elliott (@splash_cousin) December 13, 2022
The flashes of greatness for Jackson are there week after week, and it’s only fair to wonder just how high his ceiling might become with more time and experience in this system.
Speaking of lifesavers, McGill has been an unsung hero for the 49ers over the last couple of months. With the depth on the interior of the defensive line depleted down to critical levels, McGill has stepped in and provided the 49ers with a steady and reliable presence inside.
McGill has recorded a STOP in the run game in three consecutive games, and he added two pressures against the Buccaneers. Including this one here where he was able to get pressure up the middle while also having the instincts to get his hands up in the throwing lane without risking a penalty putting a hand on Brady after the ball came out.
Pressure up the middle from T.Y. McGill pic.twitter.com/8SRm5zyOm9— Jordan Elliott (@splash_cousin) December 13, 2022
McGill also had another great rep against the run in the first quarter, and even though the focus of this article has been on the pass rush, I still want to highlight it because McGill has been a big part of the 49ers' success as of late and I don’t think he gets enough credit for that.
T.Y. McGill has been a huge addition for the 49ers defense this season as they have dealt with a wave of injuries to their interior DL— Jordan Elliott (@splash_cousin) December 13, 2022
McGill has recorded a STOP in the run game in each of the last three games and had two pressures on Tom Brady in Sunday’s win over the Bucs pic.twitter.com/EE6uvN8XbT
Willis has shown with the right amount of volume, he is going to provide a consistent level of impact. Willis has appeared in five games this season and in the three games, he has gotten more than 10 pass-rushing snaps, he has recorded multiple pressures in each of those contests.
That includes Sunday’s win over the Buccaneers, where Willis recorded two pressures, including this quarterback hit on Brady.
Jordan Willis delivering one of the six QB hits the 49ers put on Tom Brady pic.twitter.com/O3O56nSGbU— Jordan Elliott (@splash_cousin) December 13, 2022
Last but certainly not least is Givens. One of my favorite players to watch on this 49ers team, Givens is a guy who quietly seems to make splash plays every single week that either go unnoticed or get overshadowed by one of the other very talented players on the roster.
Givens, unfortunately, had to depart this game early on with a knee injury that is expected to sideline him for a few weeks, but before he left, he made his presence felt by registering a pressure on Brady up the middle.