SANTA CLARA — Christmas came in mid-November for Arik Armstead, who was beginning to wonder if he’d be able to join his 49ers teammates in their quest for a championship.

Armstead, the anchor of the front seven on the 49ers’ defense, was dealing with plantar fasciitis on his right foot and a hairline fracture of his left fibula. The 49ers’ defense jelled in 2021 when Armstead began to play exclusively inside after playing both end and tackle, and he was eager to  make another run at a Super Bowl after falling short last season.

After playing in a 24-9 win over the Los Angeles Rams in Week 4, the 49ers decided to shut Armstead down and eventually placed him on injured reserve. Never envisioning he would be out that long, Armstead was discouraged after the 49ers arrived in Colorado Springs to train in the altitude before facing the Arizona Cardinals on Nov. 21.

“I was definitely concerned, especially with the leg,” Armstead said Wednesday as he sat on stool in front of his locker. “I thought I was going to be back a long time before I came back. When I got to Colorado, I could barely run.”

But before the 49ers departed for Mexico City, Armstead finally began to see some improvement.

“I started to see some sunlight,” Armstead said. “By the end of that trip I finally started to jog and things started to happen at a more rapid pace.

GREEN BAY, WISCONSIN - JANUARY 22: San Francisco 49ers' Arik Armstead (91) celebrates after sacking Green Bay Packers starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) in the fourth quarter for their NFC divisional playoff NFL game at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wi., on Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)
Arik Armstead (91) of the 49ers missed eight games this season but has returned for the stretch run and postseason. Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group

Armstead finally began practicing on Nov. 25 and came off injured reserve to face Miami on Dec. 4, having missed eight games when he originally hoped he’d be out a few weeks.

He played 21 snaps his first game back against Miami, then 51 against Tampa Bay and 47 against Seattle. Armstead’s impact has been immediate as a run-stopper and pushing the pocket. He had five pressures of Seahawks’ quarterback Geno Smith in the 49ers’ 21-13 win that clinched the NFC West.

The target Saturday is Washington quarterback Taylor Heinicke when the 49ers (10-4)  host the Commanders (7-6-1) at Levi’s Stadium.

“You have a very dominant player in Armstead who’s been a great player in this league for a long time,” defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans said. “It doesn’t take him long to get back going or get back into football mode. Once he hits the ground he hits it running. He’s affecting the game.”

Armstead resists the idea that he’s stepped right back in as if he’s never been away.

“I’m definitely still rusty, still getting back into it,” Armstead said. “But I’ve played a lot of football so I can go out there and be effective. I’m getting more of a rhythm and getting in better shape too.”

In a locker room full of stars and big personalities, Armstead, 29, is soft-spoken and understated. Voted by his teammates as one of the six co-captains, what Armstead says carries perspective and influence for the rest of the roster.

“I don’t know if it’s stability or just a calming presence,” 49ers tight end George Kittle said. “He’s not a big soap box guy. Arik is a grinder, likes to work hard and is very respectful in everything he does. He doesn’t say anything obnoxious. Every time I have a conversation with the guy I walk away thinking, `this guy is smart as hell.’ ”

At 6-foot-7, 290 pounds, Armstead is taller than most interior tackles but has avoided being leveraged by interior linemen who operate from a lower center of gravity. He’s got 28 1/2 career sacks and had as many as 10 in 2019, but sacks are fewer and farther between now that he gets all his snaps inside.

“He is a guy who can bend well for how big he is, but when you’re that big and have that type of push you don’t always have to get under people,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “I think that’s sometimes why maybe he doesn’t always flash to everybody because he’s not going to get under guys, make them miss, but that’s why he affects every play. Quarterbacks know they can’t step into a throw, and it’s a huge difference.”

Armstead has learned to adjust to roles that have changed from base end, rush end, defensive tackle and often in years prior playing defensive end on early downs and moving inside on third down.

“I’ve played a bunch of different schemes and different roles,” Armstead said. “It just so happens my abilities have an impact on the game and it’s not about getting the stats all the time. Of course I want those stats and have gotten them, but playing the right way, playing your responsibility at a high level is important too.”

Whether Armstead is getting the sack or not, Ryans believes having him back in the lineup has taken an already formidable defense to another level.


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