One 49ers DL holds key to defensive turnaround after bye

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There wasn’t much going right for the 49ers for the first five weeks of the season, and finding consistent bright spots hasn’t been easy. There are two names, Deebo Samuel and Nick. Bosa, who jump out as the team’s best players after five games, but there’s an under-the-radar star for San Francisco who could hold the key to a turnaround after the bye.

Defensive lineman Arik Armstead hasn’t been able to generate sacks the way he did in 2019 when he led the team with 10.0, but his play in 2021 is one of the reasons the 49ers defense has managed to keep its head above water despite a rash of injuries in an already thin secondary.

After a down year in 2020 where Armstead struggled on a beat up defensive front, he came out strong in 2021 with 18 pressures and 1.0 sacks in five games per Pro Football Focus. The sack totals are still lacking, but his presence in opposing backfields has been regular this year.

In Week 5 against the Cardinals he had two different instances where he collapsed the pocket from the inside to force throwaways by Arizona quarterback Kyler Murray. Those two instances offered good examples of why Armstead is so important for San Francisco.

When he’s playing well, he’s an excellent run defender on the edge and a very effective interior pass rusher. That versatility was part of the reason the 49ers gave him a five-year deal worth $85 million last offseason. He’s supposed to impact games as a pass rusher, and San Francisco’s defensive line is dependent on his play up front. When he’s not playing well, the entire line suffers. When he’s making regular appointments in the opponent’s backfield, the 49ers defense looks like a playoff-caliber unit.

Through five weeks Armstead has been better than he was in 2020, and it’s helped San Francisco field a defense that’s No. 16 in points allowed, No. 7 yards and No. 16 in DVOA per Football Outsiders. There’s another level for the 49ers to reach, and it’ll require another jump from a player like Armstead. If he continues churning out pressures and helping the 49ers’ defensive front more consistently impact opposing quarterbacks, San Francisco should have a defense worthy of a trip back to the postseason.

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