There were some phenomenal showings from so many 49ers players this past season. As someone who cherishes every minute I get to spend analyzing the game of football, it’s been a pure joy to go back and watch the game film from these incredible performances.
There were so many outstanding efforts that didn’t make the cut that I wish I could have included on this list, which speaks volumes to how loaded this 49ers roster is with talented football players. I have thoroughly enjoyed putting together this list and the many hours of studying game films and write-ups to follow.
However, like all good things in this world, this too eventually has to come to an end as we wrap up this series with the final selection on this list.
Almost at the finish line, we break into the two most impressive individual performances from the 49ers 2021 campaign.
As a refresher, the factors I used to create this list include how did each performance hold up with the eye test. After going back and watching the game film, was it as impressive now as it was at the time?
I also heavily weighed the game’s impact, meaning the stakes of each contest played a pivotal role in how these rankings ultimately played out—finally, good old-fashioned statistics. So while the eye test was the primary factor being weighed, I also made it a point to place enough emphasis on the objective numbers a player posted in their respective games.
Without further ado, number one on the list:
Arik Armstead - Divisional Round @ Green Bay
This performance by Armstead was the exclamation point on one of the most dominant three-week stretches I have ever seen from an interior defensive lineman. Armstead has been an extraordinarily valuable piece on this 49ers defense over the last few seasons, but his performance on the frozen tundra in Green Bay is the magnum opus of the pro bowler’s NFL career thus far.
With the stakes at their highest, in absolutely brutal conditions, the 49ers’ defensive lineman wreaked havoc among the best offenses in the league, being piloted greatest quarterbacks to pick up a football.
Armstead’s impact was felt on almost every play he was on the field in this game and was a major reason that the 49ers went into Lambeau and upset the best team in the NFC on their own home field.
One of the primary reasons I wanted to do this series in the first place was to highlight the impact that NFL players have on a given play, game, season, etc., that cannot be quantified in a statistic or traditional box score.
I don’t think there is a more perfect embodiment of that than what Armstead did in this game against the Packers, regularly being the most important player on the field on a handful of plays that will never show up on a stat sheet.
So to start the breakdown for this article, I am going to highlight some plays from this game that really showcase the impact that Armstead had on snaps where he didn’t record a pressure, a tackle for loss, a sack, or any other statistic without nuance that is used as a barometer when discussing the performance of a defensive lineman.
Let’s start with a 1st & 10 for the Packers offense with 9:33 to go in the second quarter. Green Bay is lined up at their own 38-yard line, in 11 personnel, with Aaron Jones as the lone tailback in the backfield. Rodgers is going to hand off to Jones, who is then brought down in the backfield for a one-yard loss.
Now, at first glance, this might seem like a play where you quickly chalk it up as all-pro linebacker Fred Warner making a play in the backfield as he often does and quickly moves on to the next. Which is where I would implore you to ask yourself, how does Warner get such a clear path to the ball carrier on this rep? Here is a closer look again, this time from the end zone angle.
Before we get into the cut-up, make note of where Armstead is before the ball is snapped on this play. He is going to be lined up as a 2i technique — directly shaded over the inside eye of the Packers’ right guard.
Now, what is the significance of this? Because of Armstead’s positioning, the center is going to have to work horizontally to help on Armstead before he can come off that block and engage with the linebacker, who on this specific rep is Warner.
Armstead holds his position while being engaged by two Packers offensive linemen at the same time and, as a result, opens the A-Gap for Warner to explode through and make a play on the ball carrier. Here is the full rep, from the end zone angle.
A similar play occurred with 0:56 seconds remaining in the first half, with Green Bay facing a 1st & 4 from their own four-yard line. Once again, Armstead is going to shade the guard at the 2-technique, and again the center is going to have to work laterally before coming off to block Warner.
The A-Gap is again wide open because of this, and Warner shoots through it to limit this carry by Packers running back AJ Dillon to a short gain.
Perhaps the greatest example of this occurred on the first play of the second quarter, with the Packers facing a 2nd & 7 from their own 20-yard line. Green Bay’s right tackle and right guard are going to attempt to combo block Armstead before the right guard breaks off to engage with Warner just beyond the A gap.
This never happens, though, because Armstead moves laterally, working to the outside shoulder of the guard whose responsibility is to peel off and engage Warner. Armstead not only obstructs the guard from getting to that block, he completely prevents it as he clears an alley for Warner to shoot the gap and blow this play up for a short gain.
There were a handful of plays in this game where Armstead’s ability to eat up space and occupy Packers players in a way directly led to a 49ers teammate making a play on a ball carrier in the run game. However, this Impact wasn’t limited to just the ground game, as Armstead also had a number of reps as a pass rusher where he left his imprint on the play in a way that won’t be properly reflected in the box score.
For example, with 8:18 remaining in the second quarter, the Packers’ offense faced a 3rd and 11 from their own 37-yard line. Pre-snap, Armstead is going to be lined up at the three-technique, between the guard and the right tackle.
49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans is going to dial up a stunt with Armstead and Arden Key, who is lined up between the left guard and left tackle.
Now take a look at this play from the end zone angle, and watch how quickly Armstead is able to work laterally. Look at the size of the path that he clears for Key to rush Rodgers in the pocket.
The amount of power Armstead generates on this rep is absolutely ridiculous. While he is moving laterally and engaged with the right guard, Armstead is going to collide with the center with so much force that he turns him 90 degrees upon impact. Watch this play one more time, and keep an eye on #71 for the Packers
Rodgers is going to get this ball out before the 49ers’ pass rush can get all the way home, but he is forced to check down to a running back well short of the line to gain.
The pressure coming from Key was a direct result of Armstead clearing out two offensive linemen simultaneously, yet nothing in the stat sheet will reflect how important Armstead was to the 49ers’ defense generating a stop on third down on this play.
Something similar happened on the previous play on second down. The Packers offense is going to come out in 11 personnel, with Rodgers in the gun. Rodgers is going to go into a three-step drop, but as he gets into the top of his drop, he must account for the pressure coming off the right side of the offensive line from Bosa.
Here is where Armstead’s impact can be felt. Lucas Patrick, the Packers’ right guard, will slide to his right while blocking Armstead, leaving the A-Gap wide open in front of Rodgers. Armstead is then going to work back across the left shoulder of Patrick, to work back over the middle and fill the A-Gap that was exposed.
As Rodgers steps up, the most direct path to escaping the pocket or hitting a read over the middle is eliminated by Armstead filling this gap. This forces Rodgers to the outside, which comes with a slight delay as he must move laterally before being able to move upfield.
With Rodgers flushed to the right side, this gave Bosa a clear path to track down the quarterback from behind, something that was not viable just moments before, while the right tackle sealed off Bosa from getting to Rodgers in the pocket. Bosa chases Rodgers down and brings him down near the line of scrimmage for no gain.
This play was made possible because of Armstead funneling Rodgers out on Bosa’s side. Little things like this add up over the course of a game that equates to a substantial impact on this 49ers defense. Once again, Armstead heavily influenced a play for which his name won’t appear on the stat sheet.
Another example came late in the second quarter, with the Packers having possession of the ball deep in 49ers territory with a chance to make it a two-touchdown game going into the half. Rodgers is going to drop back and get strip-sacked by Bosa, which held the Green Bay offense to a field goal attempt in the red zone.
This ended up being huge because the field goal attempt was blocked by Jimmie Ward, and as a result, the 49ers went into halftime only facing a seven-point deficit rather than the double-digit hole they would have been in had the Packers offense been able to get points before the half. So, where does Armstead factor into this play? Let’s take a closer look.
Ryans made a concerted effort to get Armstead and Bosa matched up with the right side of Green Bay’s offensive line, which had to do some major shuffling due to injuries. In this play, Bosa is going to be matched up with the right tackle, while Armstead takes on the right guard and center momentarily.
Watch how the power behind Armstead’s rush as he plows the right guard backward, causing the right guard to get his right foot tangled up with the left leg of the right tackle engaging with Bosa.
Bosa now has a free path to Rodgers, getting home to force the football free and eliminate any hope the Packers had of getting in the end zone before the half. The blocked field goal attempt that ensued was a pivotal turning point in this game, and it would not have been possible without Armstead’s impact on the previous play.
Here it is one more time at full speed from the end zone angle. Watch the domino effect that Armstead generates with this rush.
Speaking of power generated during a pass rush, I have to take a moment to point out just how physically overpowering Armstead was in his matchups with the Packers’ offensive line in this game. On multiple occasions, he not only moved his opponent but literally lifted them off the ground as he barreled his way towards the Green Bay backfield.
This started early and was a theme throughout this entire game. Watch the bull rush on this rep against Packers right tackle Lucas Patrick from the first quarter.
Look at this bull rush from Arik Armstead pic.twitter.com/LQHoaT5nw0— Jordan Elliott (@JLeeElliott) July 11, 2022
Armstead absolutely obliterates Patrick on this play. Rodgers is as good as any quarterback in the NFL when it comes to getting the ball out quickly, and because he does so on this play, one of the most impressive individual pass rushing reps of this game went by largely unnoticed.
There were a handful of other reps like this, where Armstead completely dominates Patrick one on one. Unfortunately, it went by largely unnoticed because it didn’t result in a sack due to Rodgers’ elite ability to get the ball out quickly.
Like this play late in the fourth quarter. Watch this swim move that Armstead puts on Patrick. Look at the way Patrick turns back around after Armstead gets by him, likely wondering how exactly a 6’9 300, pound linemen blew by him with such agility and finesse.
While this didn’t generate a sack, it did force Rodgers to throw hot into the flat, and the check down allowed another 49ers defender to make a play short of the sticks.
This happened again on a 3rd & 5 in the second quarter, as Armstead drives Patrick backward, with Rodgers throwing quickly to the flat before the pressure can get there.
Here is the same play, but from the end zone angle. Watch how much force Armstead is able to generate while getting up and under the pads of Patrick.
Armstead’s strength was on full display in this game. However, so was his technical ability and elite hand placement usage to generate leverage and drive opposing linemen backward.
Watch this rep on 2nd & 10 from the Packers 32’ yard line midway through the third quarter. Look at how Armstead gets his hands under the arms of the center and, as a result, dictates the leverage in this engagement to drive the center back in the pocket towards Rodgers.
This forces Rodgers to step up and change direction, ultimately making life more difficult on a player who will shred a defense that allows him the time and comfort to operate that Armstead denied on this rush.
Now, let’s get to the big finale. Armstead was fantastic in this contest throughout, but he had two reps in the fourth quarter of this game that was integral to the 49ers coming out of this game with a win. Without these, I do not think the 49ers will come out of this game as the victor.
The first came with 12:35 remaining in the fourth quarter. The Packers held a 7-3 lead and faced a 3rd & 8 from inside the 49ers' 10-yard line. There were still over ten minutes left in this game, but given how it had played out to this point, it felt like if Green Bay could get into the end zone on this play, it would have all but wrapped this one up.
The 49ers' defense had to find a way to pull out a stop here and force a field goal attempt, which would at worse keep this a one-score game. These are the kind of moments that define greatness. Up against the elements, season dependent on you finding a way to make a play here and get the ball back to your offense. The stage was set, it was just a matter of who was going to be the one to rise to the occasion.
Green Bay’s offense comes out in an empty set, with Rodgers getting into a three-step drop hoping to connect with one of his five receivers running routes on this play. As he works into the top of his drop, he no longer has any room to step up as he is staring directly into the backside of his right guard, who has been driven right back into his lap.
He is then sacked by Armstead, who wraps Rodgers up for a loss of seven yards and forces the field goal attempt that the hope of the 49ers' season staying alive was depending on.
Now, Armstead getting the sack alone on this play is impressive enough in its own right. Season on the line, and he stepped and made a play his team absolutely had to have. In this case, however, the result itself isn’t what I will remember this play for, rather how the sack came to be in the first place.
Armstead had been getting the better of Patrick throughout this game, and it was a major reason the 49ers held the explosive Packers offense to only 10 points in this game. But what he did to Patrick on this play was simply otherworldly. Armstead didn’t just beat his man to get a sack. He completely annihilated Patrick on this play.
The bull rush had been extremely effective for Armstead in this game, so it is no surprise he went to it here in such a crucial spot. Take another look at this rep from the end zone angle, and watch the way this bull rush is able to generate so much power that Armstead literally gets Patrick off of BOTH of his feet TWICE on this same rep.
This is just remarkable given the circumstances. Here it is one more time for your viewing pleasure, with a focus on Armstead picking Patrick off of his feet.
The 49ers' defense got the stop they needed, and the Packers kicked a field goal to make this a 10-3 game. However, the 49ers did not get a scoring drive to answer, thus giving the ball back to the Green Bay offense with a seven-point lead and time running out.
With 5:29 left in the fourth quarter, Green Bay faced a 3rd & 8 from their own 23-yard line. All the stakes that were mentioned above applied to this play as well, except it was even more amplified now, given how little time was left on the clock and how hard it was going to be for the 49ers' offense to move the ball in these elements should they get a chance to answer.
Ryans is going to show pressure, bringing seven 49ers defenders near the line of scrimmage. Six of these players end up rushing Rodgers, including four off the right side where Armstead is lined up. Here is what happened next.
Armstead shoots through the A-Gap, and splits between the center and right guard to fight his way into the backfield to take down Rodgers for a loss of 11. Here is a the end zone angle which will provide a much better view of how this play unfolded.
Once again due to an Armstead sack, Green Bay was forced to call on their special teams and trot out by far the worst unit on their team during the 2021 season, the punt team. The very next play ends up being a blocked punt by Jordan Willis, recovered in the end zone for a touchdown by Talanoa Hufanga to tie this football game.
A play that immediately became cemented in 49ers postseason lore, and it was all possible due to the timely sack by Armstead in the most crucial of moments in this football game.
I think it’s quite poetic that in a game where Armstead did so much of the dirty work throughout, he ends up being the player to shine when the lights were the brightest in the fourth quarter of an instant classic between two storied franchises. This performance from Armstead checked every single box that this list was based on and then some.
The game film now is as impressive as it was during the first watch. The statistics were there with two huge sacks in the fourth quarter, and the impact of the game was about as important as one could imagine. How much more significant does it get than playing for a spot in the conference title game on a cold frozen evening in arguably the most iconic setting the sport has to offer.
Thanks again to everyone who has been a long for the ride as this list was unveiled, and for one final time, I will post the complete list below, with links to each article for each of the previous spots.
#1 - Arik Armstead @ Green Bay - Divisional Round