MIAMI -- Before just about any NFL game, you're bound to hear some player or coach or analyst describe the following key to defensive success: getting pressure with the front four so that you don't have to resort to the blitz. This season, no team in the league did that better than the San Francisco 49ers. Despite ranking 29th in the NFL in blitz rate (plays they sent more than just four players rushing the quarterback) at 20.9 percent, the Niners ranked third in the league in sack rate (8.5 percent) and second in pressure rate, getting in the opposing quarterback's face on 28.7 percent of opponent dropbacks, per Pro-Football-Reference.
Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh deserves a tremendous amount of credit for putting his pass rushers in a position to succeed, but that success is also owed to the sheer amount of talent the 49ers have along the front. The investment the team has made in the defensive line is pretty staggering -- they used four first-round picks on defensive linemen in a five-year span, traded a second-round selection for another former first-rounder and promptly handed him a five-year, $85.5 million contract, and landed several rotational contributors in the late rounds of the draft and on bargain-bin free-agent contracts.
Those four first-round picks are Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner, Solomon Thomas, and Nick Bosa. That former first-rounder who was acquired via trade and then showered with cash is Dee Ford. And those rotational contributors are D.J. Jones, Ronald Blair, Sheldon Day, and Anthony Zettel. That group is wildly talented, and they were wildly productive this season.
Armstead finished the year with 10 sacks, 11 tackles for loss, and 18 quarterback hits. He ranked 39th in pressure rate among the 222 players defensive linemen and linebackers who rushed the passer at least 100 times. Buckner finished with 7.5 sacks, nine tackles for loss, 14 hits, and ranked 70th among that same group of 222 in pressure rate. Bosa had nine sacks, 16 tackles for loss, 25 hits, and ranked sixth in pressure rate. Ford had 6.5 sacks, six tackles for loss, and six hits in 11 games, and ranked 14th in pressure rate. Thomas, Jones, Blair, Day, and Zettel played far fewer snaps because they're rotational contributors, but they combined for eight sacks, 19 tackles for loss, and 13 QB hits.
For Armstead, the sheer volume of high-level contributors is part of what makes them so successful.
"Each guy is special in their own way and we provide a unique issue for our opponent," he said. "We play for one another out there. It's not just the starters, either. Our second unit comes in and they play at a high level. All season, when I came out of the game I've been really relaxed because I know that our second unit is gonna go in there and do their thing and make plays. And that gives me a chance to go get rest and then come back out there and do it again. It's a lot of fun being surrounded by all these great players."
People outside of San Francisco may not have seen this unit becoming this dominant, but Ford did. It's why he chose to go there in the first place.
"Part of me deciding to come to San Francisco, I knew what the future held. I knew we had a really good chance of getting Nick. I knew he was a great talent that was coming out, so I saw a great opportunity there," Ford said. "I've always kept up with [Thomas], Arik, [Buckner], D.J., Sheldon. They've been a really good D-line. Unfortunately it just didn't show up in the stat room most times but I knew what I was getting myself into. I did a lot of research on coming to San Fran before I made that decision."
Ford and Bosa joining the group that was already in place just took the unit to another level. For Armstead, getting to rush alongside Ford has been a blessing. You can't double both of those guys and still have enough blockers left over to handle everyone else. A lot of opponents will prioritize Ford, leaving Armstead free to wreak havoc.
"He's an extreme talent," Armstead said. "Pass rusher, stopping the run, he can do it all. When I line up and we're rushing together, he opens up some things for me by drawing attention towards him."
Armstead's not the only fellow defensive lineman who will rave about his new teammate. Buckner almost lights up talking about how quickly Ford is able to get around the edge. If he could steal any skill from any of his fellow linemates, Buckner would steal Ford's first step.
"His get-off is unbelievable," Buckner said. "Honestly, I haven't seen anybody with a better get-off or takeoff than he has. His first step is unbelievable. The way he puts tackles in panic, having them abort their technique and all that. It's unbelievable. If I could take something from somebody's game, it would be Dee's get-off."
NFL.com's NextGen Stats back up Buckner's jealousy. Ford ranked third in the NFL in pass rush get-off, and finished only 0.02 seconds behind the first-place guy, quick-twitch Panthers rookie Brian Burns.
The key to Dee Ford's success as a pass rusher?— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 29, 2020
Ford wins with elite first step quickness, as measured by "pass rush get-off", which represents the time it takes for a pass rusher to cross the line of scrimmage after the snap.#SBLIV | #GoNiners pic.twitter.com/FqOvINmGX7
Talk to Ford, though, and he's quick to note that guys like Armstead and Buckner and Bosa help him out, too.
"At the end of the day, I'm not who I am without great teammates," Ford pointed out. "This is not a one-man sport. And I'm not able to do what I do unless I have three other rushers that are cohesive with me and we all correlate and rush off each other. And I'm able to use what I do best in relation to what they do best. So the fact that they show up, we hold each other accountable and we trust one another. That's what makes us so special."
Ford's not the only one to turn toward "special" as the adjective of choice to describe his teammates. Armstead goes there as well and thinks he could build the perfect defensive lineman just by cherry-picking his linemates' skills.
"I definitely could take some things from everybody and make probably the best defensive lineman ever," he said. "Do that and take Dee's quickness and speed and get-off. Take [Buckner's] size and athleticism. Take Nick's technique. Take D.J. Jones' explosiveness and Solly's speed. Sheldon Day's technique. You can take all of us a mix us up into one defensive lineman and I think that would be a pretty special player."
The entire group is also quick to credit the guys that play behind them for contributing to their success. Last season's 49ers had one of the worst-performing secondaries in the league. They gave up 35 passing touchdowns and picked off only two passes. Their 105.4 opponent's passer rating ranked 31st in the NFL, and they ranked only 30th in adjusted net yards per attempt. This season, they took a massive step forward in all of those areas. They yielded 23 passing touchdowns and picked off 12 passes. They ranked seventh in opponent's passer rating (83.0) and second in adjusted net yards per attempt.
Richard Sherman, Ahkello Witherspoon, K'Waun Williams, Emmanuel Moseley, Jimmie Ward, Jaquiski Tartt, Tarvarius Moore, and Marcell Harris, plus Kwon Alexander, Fred Warner, and Dre Greenlaw, formed one of the best back-halves in the NFL this season. And according to the guys who play in front of them, their stinginess was just as big a part of the pass rush as the guys doing the actual rushing.
"It both goes hand in hand. I think those guys on the back end have been having a tremendous year. I wouldn't say they've been playing well just because of us. Rush and coverage go hand in hand," Armstead said. "They've been really sticky in coverage, which allows us to get there. It gives us an extra hitch to get there and get to the quarterback. When there's some slippage in the back end, we've been able to pick up some slack. When we're hitting on all cylinders, we're pretty special and we've been able to do that a bunch this year."
Buckner is right there with him.
"We talk about it all the time," he said. "The guys are back there and they're covering and all of a sudden they hear the crowd roar when we're at home. They see somebody doing a celebration and they're like, 'Oh we got a sack!' They're definitely very happy that we're getting there with just us four up front. We take a lot of pride in that. Obviously the organization has invested a lot in our group, drafting-wise and bringing Dee in and everything. We take a lot of pride to that and our guys on the back end, we want to make their jobs easier."
San Francisco's run defense was not quite as good as its pass defense, but that doesn't mean it wasn't still good. The Niners ranked 11th in Football Outsiders' run defense DVOA. They were 13th in Adjusted Line Yards and second in success rate allowed on third or fourth downs with two or fewer yards to go. Their success in those situations is what allows them to go after quarterbacks with such ferocity.
"That's the number one focus on my mind is to stop the run and put ourselves in good position to rush the passer. And that's really how I get my game going: taking pride in stopping the run and being physical on those run downs," Armstead says. "And then pass rushing and doing all that is secondary for me. I want to stop the run, make them one-dimensional, and really for all of us it starts with that. Make them one dimensional, put them in bad situations, third-and-long and then we can pin our ears back and go."
According to Buckner, nobody plays a bigger role in that run game success than Armstead himself.
"Arik Armstead is probably the best edge-setter in the game, in the run game," Buckner boasted. "Him going against tight ends, it's a mismatch every single time. Even tackles. It's unbelievable to see him take a grown man against his will and put him in the backfield and get a TFL and thinks like that. And also with Nick, he can set the edges in the run game. Dee sets edges in the run game. Anthony Zettel setting edges. So it's everybody. And also the D-tackles. When your defensive ends can set edges like they do, we can just attack. If we get reached and we're playing the back side of the block we can still get there because the running back has to check his feet and cut back into us. So they make our jobs easier, too."
That attacking style is built into the DNA of this defensive line. It all starts with their position coach, Kris Kocurek, who has a pretty simple philosophy for success.
"Setting edges and raising hell inside," Buckner said. "That's what Coach Kocurek says all the time. And I truly believe it."