When you play on the same defensive line as a frontrunner for defensive player of the year, it can be easy to get lost in the shuffle. But, even beyond the limelight Nick Bosa constantly resides in, there is another layer of highly talented defensive linemen like Arik Armstead and Samson Ebukam or the newfound fan favorites like Charles Omenihu or Drake Jackson.
With a defensive line this deep, what ends up happening is that a lot of the dirty work being done by the guys on the back end of the rotation ends up getting overlooked. The 49ers currently have the number-one-ranked defense in the league, largely due to the contributions they have been getting from players who aren’t household names.
What makes some of these contributions even more remarkable is that they are coming from players who were signed to the practice squad and subsequently thrust into action as the 49ers' defensive line had its depth depleted throughout the season.
Like T.Y. McGill, who was signed to the practice squad by the 49ers on October 8th, following an early September release by the Minnesota Vikings, which was pretty surprising given how well he played during the preseason. 49ers fans might remember his performance against the 49ers in the second week of the preseason, which included a sack of Nate Sudfeld.
After appearing in three games between weeks 8-11, McGill was promoted to the active roster before the 49ers' Week 12 meeting with the Saints and has been a fixture on the interior of the 49ers' defensive line. McGill’s presence has proven vital to a unit that has seen its top four interior linemen all missed time with injuries this season, providing the 49ers with a reliable and dependable presence inside.
Mcgill has recorded at least one pressure or run stop in each of the last six games he has appeared in, including this tackle for loss on Saints running back Alvin Kamara during the 49ers' win over New Orleans. Check out the swim move McGill uses to rip into the backfield.
McGill was also instrumental in the 49ers' goal-line stand in their win over the Commanders last week, being heavily involved in both of the failed Washington rushing attempts from the 49ers one yard line.
At first, you can see the way that McGill slows up Commander running back Brian Robinson in the backfield, which allows other defenders time to rally to the ball carrier and make a tackle short of the goal line.
On the second, McGill is going to get low and help clog the gap that Commander running back Antonio Gibson is attempting to run through on fourth and goal from the 49ers' one-yard line. McGill and Fred Warner both fill the gap and stop Gibson short of the goal line to force a turnover on downs.
While McGill has been fantastic, he hasn’t been the only practice squad call-up who has made contributions to the league's best defense. Like McGill, Akeem Spence was signed to the practice squad before being activated and making an impact in a huge way for the 49ers' defense.
After being promoted to the active roster on December 15th, Spence has recorded at least one pressure in each of the last two games, including a superb effort in the 49ers' Christmas eve win over the Washington Commanders.
What stood out in this game was the way that Spence was able to make an impact by creating opportunities for his teammates. Spence had a particularly noteworthy rep that saw him toss the right guard to the ground and, in turn, widen the gap, making things easier for Dre Greenlaw to fill as he got downhill on his run fit.
Akeem Spence!! Tosses the RG to the ground and widens the gap which makes it easier for Dre Greenlaw to fill as he gets downhill on his run fit pic.twitter.com/Zo6Ai0cL7H— Jordan Elliott (@splash_cousin) December 29, 2022
Spence also had a rep like this rushing the passer, where the interior pressure he was able to generate with an exceptional use of the long arm prevented Commanders quarterback Taylor Heinicke from having any room to step up in the pocket at the top of his drop. This allowed Jordan Willis to get a sack off the edge largely due to how much depth Heinicke had to get as a result of moving up in the pocket not being an option.
It won’t show up on a stat sheet, but this sack is largely due to the pressure Akeem Spence is able the generate up the middle— Jordan Elliott (@splash_cousin) December 29, 2022
Spence drives the RG back with a phenomenal long arm/bull rush combo which leaves Heinicke unable to step up in the pocket at the top of his drop pic.twitter.com/m8GL474uIq
The most recent of these improbable heroes on the defensive line is Michael Dwumfour, who was signed to the 49ers practice squad on December 15th after being released by the Houston Texans earlier in the month. Dwumfour made his 49ers debut against the Commanders and immediately made an impact in the 22 snaps he played.
Dwumfour had two pressures as well as a run stop in his first game in the red and gold, including this stop early in the second quarter. Look at the push that Dwumfour is able to generate off the snap, getting low to out-leverage his matchup and make a play on the ball carrier.
Dwumfour also flashed his potential as a pass rusher, registering a pressure after beating the center with an excellent double swipe move.
Michael Dwumfour had an impressive debut with the 49ers— Jordan Elliott (@splash_cousin) December 27, 2022
Had a couple of pressures on 11 pass rushing snaps
Here’s one of them, Dwumfour beats the center with a double swipe pic.twitter.com/csyu7kNJub
It’s been a very small sample size, but Dwumfour looks like a player who could play into the 49ers' plans in both the short and the long term moving forward. Keep in mind that Dwumfour is just 24 years old, and the last time the 49ers brought in 24-year-old defensive linemen that had most recently played for the Texans, things worked out quite well for them.
In a season that the 49ers were without Armstead, Javon Kinlaw, Hassan Ridgeway, and Kevin Givens for large chunks of time, they still managed to maintain their status as the best defense in the league. This was in large part due to their ability to maintain up front and continue to win the battle at the line of scrimmage, something that would have been impossible without the aforementioned players.
None of us know where this season will end for the 49ers, but no matter how the story ultimately unfolds, these unsung heroes on the defensive line will have played an integral role in wherever the end destination for this team lies.