Arik Armstead has been a dominant, positive force both on and off the field. His efforts in community service, inspired by LeBron James and Nipsey Hussle, have earned him consecutive nominations as the 49ers Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year.
Not only has the defensive lineman stepped up for his community, but he's stepped up for his team when they needed him most. The San Francisco 49ers lost defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw to a season-ending knee injury early in the season, and relied on the team captain to help solidify the interior of the D-line.
Armstead spent time playing off the edge and inside to open the season, averaging two tackles per game and recording only one sack through the 49ers first five games of the season. However, with a more-permanent move inside, Armstead has averaged 4.4 tackles per game, 5.0 sacks, six tackles for loss and nine quarterback hits the ensuing 12 games of the regular season.
"It's just football," Armstead said. "I feel like I can play any position on the D-line and wherever they put me I'm gonna try to be dominant, it's just my mindset … I'm versatile and I can play any position."
Overall, Armstead has supported the 49ers third-ranked defense with 56 total tackles and 6.0 sacks in the regular season. He's also been key in San Francisco's seventh-ranked rushing defense that has limited 10 of their last 11 opponents to under 90 yards on the ground.
"Our run defense improved drastically because of the unselfish play by Arik Armstead," defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans said. "Arik can play outside, Arik can play inside. That's Arik. He's a playmaker, no matter where he is."
Although Armstead executed a dominant performance in the regular season, it was in must-win games where the lineman shined his brightest. Over the 49ers last four games, Armstead has notched a whopping 6.0 sacks, 17 pressures, 24 tackles and nine quarterback hits en route to two playoff wins and a trip to the NFC title game.
"He's been outstanding for us all season long and is just so unselfish, and one of the leaders of our team," linebacker Fred Warner said. "I'm not surprised at all. I think it was just a matter of time before he really started to — he was already balling, but I think people are just starting to notice now."
In the fourth quarter of San Francisco's Divisional Round contest against the Green Bay Packers, Armstead's 2.0 sacks of Aaron Rodgers on third down were two turning points in the 49ers victory. His second sack set up the blocked punt by defensive lineman Jordan Willis, which helped give the 49ers their upset win over the top-seeded NFC team.
"It was an amazing experience," Armstead said. "Any time you can get a sack on (Rodgers) in a game like that, in a big moment, it's definitely a great feeling. Just to make my family proud. A lot of people are cheering for me to prove them right. To make my parents proud is a great feeling."
Limiting the Packers to just 67 rushing yards and sacking Rodgers for a total of five times, San Francisco's defensive unit has led their team to the NFC Championship where they are set to play the Los Angeles Rams on the road.
In the Week 18 meeting against the Rams, Los Angeles entered that game with the highest-graded pass blocking unit in the NFL, and the 49ers had Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford under pressure on 18 of his 37 dropbacks (48.6 percent). Armstead was instrumental in the Rams offensive struggles, recording seven tackles and a career-high 2.5 sacks on the day, with the desire to put up a repeat outing in Sunday's conference championship.
Plenty is at stake in Sunday's rematch against Los Angeles, including a six-game win streak and a possible trip to Super Bowl LVI. And Armstead believes the 49ers have the right pieces to continue their postseason success beyond Sunday, not excluding his own efforts.
"I think we have a really talented team," Armstead said. "Especially playoff football. It's tailor-made for our style and what we want to do — as far as running the ball and playing great defense. We feel like we can win any game … I told my D-line in our night meeting before the game we have a special group and I want to keep making memories with them. I just don't want to go home. I want to keep this going as long as we can. They're depending on me to make plays."