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The return of Arik Armstead has elevated the 49ers defense to new heights

Arguably the best defense in the league only got better since 91 returned to the field

San Francisco 49ers v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

The 49ers have spent the majority of this season enjoying the prestigious label of often being referred to as the best defense in the league. They have been. This unit has suffocated opposing offenses with logic-defying speed at all three levels, week in and week out.

So how exactly do you improve a defense that has been ranked at or near the top in all major statistical categories all season long? You add a player like Arik Armstead back into the fold.

After missing two months following a foot injury suffered in Week 4, Armstead has returned to the lineup with a vengeance, wasting no time to remind those in the football world that he is one of the preeminent defensive linemen in the entire NFL.

Whether it’s eating blocks in the run game or wreaking havoc on passing downs, Armstead is among a small handful of players who have a distinguished reputation as someone capable of singlehandedly altering a game from the interior of the defensive line.

Since making his return against the Dolphins in Week 13, Armstead has recorded multiple pressures and registered at least one quarterback hit in each of the three games he has appeared in.

While Armstead was limited to just 19 pass-rushing snaps in his first game back, that was more than enough for him to have a game-changing impact on the final outcome of the 49ers' triumphant win over the Dolphins.

Armstead registered a key pressure that led to an errant throw by Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa that was picked off by Jimmie Ward. Here is a cut-up of the double swipe/rip move combo that Armstead used to beat the right guard and register this pressure:

That first game back also provided a great illustration of how much Armstead’s return has benefited his teammates on the defensive line as well. On this rep, Armstead is going to be lined up in an overload front to the strong side, shaded over the left guard as a 2i tech with Charles Omenihu and Bosa to his outside.

Watch how Armstead is able to take out both the center and the left guard on this stunt and, in turn, free up Bosa to rush freely through the A-gap to sack Tagovailoa in the backfield.

After the pitch count, Armstead saw in his initial return to the lineup. The star defensive lineman has recorded at least 39 pass-rushing snaps in each of the last two games that saw a heavy passing volume from Tampa Bay and Seattle.

In those two games, the Seahawks and Buccaneers were held to a paltry 4.64 yards per pass attempt, in large part due to the interior pressure that Armstead has been able to generate since returning to the field.

Armstead recorded five pressures against the Seahawks in the 49ers' division-clinching win in Seattle, the most on the team by anyone not named Nick Bosa. Armstead's ability to get in the backfield and apply pressure on Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith played a large part in Seattle’s inability to sustain any kind of consistency through the air.

Here are a couple of examples. The first is a pressure on a play fake that forced Smith to discard helplessly discard the ball without any real chance of finding a target due to the pressure applied by Armstead and Bosa.

The second is a quarterback hit Armstead put on Smith after getting freed up to rush free through the B gap on this stunt with Charles Omenihu.

Armstead also made his impact felt the week prior when the 49ers completely smothered Tom Brady and the Buccaneers offense. This particular rep stood out because it highlighted a bit of everything Armstead brings to the table. The power, the precision, the motor. You name it; he’s got it. A true technician who blends everything together with incredible size to create one of the most dynamic pass-rushing threats in the NFL.

Armstead is going to use a rip move with his right arm to hold the right guard as he executes this twist with Bosa, and then while only utilizing his left arm to engage, he puts the right tackle on skates before finishing by landing the right arm on Brady as he releases the ball and in turn flattening the greatest quarterback of all time in the process.

As the 49ers wrap up the season and begin to lock in on making a deep run through the playoffs, the timing might be the most important thing to factor in with Armstead’s return.

Armstead has proven time and time again that he is a big-time player when the stakes are at their highest. The big stage of win or go home only seems to bring out the best in Armstead, who has recorded five sacks and nine quarterback hits in six career postseason games.

That doesn’t include the 2.5 sacks and three quarterback hits Armstead logged in a must-win Week 18 thriller against the Rams in Los Angeles last season. Armstead’s performance in Green Bay in the divisional round last year was arguably the main reason the 49ers prevailed in one of the most memorable games in franchise history.