For the past few seasons, I've hoped the San Francisco 49ers' defensive line would be the team's north star. My hope went unfulfilled until this season.

It is clear defensive coordinator Robert Saleh was missing pieces to the defensive puzzle, mainly aggressive edge defenders and a capable inside linebacker, to create a fully operational and dangerous defensive line.

Two men, fifth-year veteran Arik Armstead and third-year veteran Solomon Thomas, have played vital roles in the defensive line's major transformation.

Below are a handful of moments showcasing what Armstead and Thomas bring to the 2019 49ers.

Arik Armstead


Last year, a professional football writer noted that Armstead wasn't playing good football. It was an irrational argument written without substance or fact and easily debunked as a fairy tale.

Going forward, I highly suggest ignoring anyone with wild claims that Armstead isn't an excellent defensive lineman or is only playing well because it's a contract year. There is a cold, brutish reality in professional football: every year is a contract year.

This year, Armstead is playing better than he did in 2018. Through six games, he has already surpassed his previous career-high in quarterback sacks. Further, he's on pace to have a career-high in run stops and hurries.

Week 2 - 1st Quarter: 1st and 10 at the CIN 12 (14:54)

Armstead decided on the first play of the game to throw some heat and announce his presence with authority.



There was nothing magical or exotic from the defensive front, nor Armstead. What we witnessed was an unstoppable force exposing all the flaws of one of the NFL's worst offensive tackles.



Maybe the inside track confused Andre Smith, but it didn't matter. Armstead was able to keep Smith's hands off his body and blew by him with an inside rip.

As you can see from the film, Armstead's move put Smith in an awkward position: a bent upper body, no lower base, and standing on one leg. He was in no position to keep Armstead away from quarterback Andy Dalton.

Week 3 - 2nd Quarter: 1st and 10 at the PIT 25 (6:45)

By now, we know how a defense can improve with talented edge defenders. Last season, the 49ers could not consistently control the edge of the line of scrimmage. Opposing offensive linemen would push Cassius Marsh, preventing him from pressuring the quarterback or controlling the edge. Defensive end Robert Blair played well but was not and still is not an every-down player.

Armstead continues to prove to be a quality edge defender.



In this play, Armstead's ability to control the edge of the line of scrimmage allowed linebacker Kwon Alexander to track down running back James Conner and make a tackle for loss.

Not only did Armstead provide an assist on the play, but he was also able to push away from guard David DeCastro and help chase down Conner.



I don't know how an organization like Pro Football Focus would grade this play, but it goes to show that what a defensive lineman does is more than a registered statistic.

Week 6 - 3rd Quarter: 2nd and 18 at the LAR 7 (4:13)

We've seen rookie Nick Bosa make plays on the other side of the line of scrimmage this year, but Armstead has made a few as well.

On the prior play, Thomas sacked Goff for an 8-yard loss. Rams head coach Sean McVay called a run play to the left to try and gain a bit of space from the goal line.



On zone runs, often the offense does not block the edge defender on the opposite side of the line of scrimmage. It's a gamble, but the offense is betting the edge defender will not make a play on the other side of the line.

This time, the odds were not in the Rams' favor.



Armstead shot right through a weak block and straight down the line to hold running back Malcolm Brown to a one-yard gain.

On the next play, Armstead and Bosa completely collapsed the Rams' tackles, giving Goff no room to make a throw.

Solomon Thomas


Solomon Thomas is a living, breathing example of the duality of man. Fans are either upset with the lack of production from a third-overall draft pick or want to wait and see what happens if and when Saleh moves Thomas to an inside line position.

I see both sides of the debate, especially regarding a third-overall draft pick failing to earn a starting role in his third year. However, I'd like to watch Thomas play an interior position and see if he can perform above and beyond his ceiling.

This season, Thomas has seen far less of the field than he has during his first two years as a pro. He's only amassed 111 defensive snaps this year, putting him on pace to play just over 250 total snaps. During his first two seasons, Thomas played an average of 667 snaps.

Week 6 - 2nd Quarter: 1st and 10 at the SF 46 (6:37)

Before we get to the good news, let's look at why Thomas isn't great on the edge.



On the Rams' first drive, defensive tackle D.J. Jones was getting shoved out of position on nearly every run play. Saleh replaced Jones with Thomas, which helped halt the Rams' ground attack.

For reasons unknown, Saleh then shifted Thomas back to the edge for the 49ers' fourth defensive series. On the first play, Rams' running back Darrell Henderson gained 22 yards around the left edge.



Thomas does still struggle with linemen blocking down. The assessment was noted quite clearly in his scouting report: "can get washed out of plays by strong down blocks..."

Unfortunately, it's still a weakness in his game, no matter if he's inside or playing an edge position.

Henderson's big gain is not all on Thomas' shoulders, but the move from inside to outside was a poor coaching decision. Shortly after this series, Saleh moved Thomas back inside.

Week 6 - 3rd Quarter: 1st and 10 at the LAR 15 (4:50)

Saleh moved Thomas back inside, and he sacked Goff for an eight-yard loss.



His speed, combined with his overall strength, was too much for Rams' center Brian Allen.



Plays like this continue to give me hope for Thomas.

Somehow, Saleh needs to harness this moment in time for Thomas and get him to repeat it 15-20 times a game.

Week 7 - 2nd Quarter: 1st and 10 at the WAS 35 (10:56)



Thomas' quick reaction at the snap helped him make a stop on Washington running back Adrian Peterson. He made a short loop around the guard, hit the B-gap, and bolted to his right down the line of scrimmage.

It's nothing against D.J. Jones, but he is not fast enough to make a play like this. Thomas' gambling with the snap count does pay off, making him impossible to stop.



Thomas got an assist from Armstead on the play, who pushed the tight end two or three yards behind the line of scrimmage. Again, it's an immeasurable, selfless statistic for Armstead that wasn't recognized at the moment of the play.

A defensive tackle playing a 1 or 2i technique isn't about getting every tackle or three sacks per game. A player with Thomas' athletic ability clogging up the A-gap and not giving up an inch of ground can be just as valuable as sacks or run stops.

Disruptive play from the defensive line is not measured or noticed. It's a noble role for a star athlete to allow his teammates to bask in the cheers and applause for a big tackle.

All images courtesy of NFL.com.
All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference unless noted.
  • Bret Rumbeck
  • Written by:
    Bret Rumbeck has been writing about the 49ers since 2017 for 49ers Webzone and 49ers Hub. He is a Turlock, CA native, and has worked for two members of the US House of Representatives and one US Senator. When not breaking down game film, Bret spends his time seeking out various forms of heavy metal. Feel free to follow him or direct inquiries to @brumbeck.