SANTA CLARA – Inside linebacker Ray-Ray Armstrong was rewarded with another opportunity with the 49ers for the promise he showed in a short period of time this season.
Armstrong appeared in the first two games of the season and had moved past Gerald Hodges and Michael Wilhoite to get the most playing time, along with fellow starter NaVorro Bowman.
“I do think that was the way it was going,” 49ers defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil said when asked if Armstrong would have been an every-down player. “For him, I do see him as that type of player. He’s got a skillset that’s very different than anything we have in that room, as far as his ability to blitz and play man coverage, which is what we want to be defensively.
“I don’t it was a secret I was pretty high on him. I think when you look at what we want to be defensively, and what we are, he’s a really good fit.”
But Armstrong’s season was cut short in Week 2 when he sustained a season-ending torn pectoral. Two weeks later, Bowman sustained a torn Achilles.
Injuries forced Hodges and Nick Bellore to be the team’s primary starts at inside linebacker this season. Hodges was deactivated for Sunday’s game against the Atlanta Falcons for a violation of team rules. And Bellore sustained a season-ending elbow injury on the third play from scrimmage.
O’Neil said the injuries at inside linebacker have prompted the team’s defense to completely overhaul its scheme.
“We’ve pretty much changed our whole identity in the run game from probably the first quarter of the season to what we are now,” O’Neil said. “We’ve gone from more of a two-(gap) team, where your linebackers play off the front-three guys, to more of a single-gap team because we’re tried to fit it on what we have and what our guys do best.”
The 49ers signed Armstrong this week to a two-year contract extension through the 2018 season. O’Neil said he believes Armstrong was getting to the point that he could have been an effective linebacker this season for all downs, including defending the run.
“That was one of the things if you asked any of the personnel guys and any of the coaches, that was our biggest question mark,” O’Neil said. “And I thought he answered that throughout the preseason. He really showed up in the cross-over practices against Denver and Houston, where we got a lot of downhill stuff.”
The 49ers have already surrendered a franchise-worst 2,468 rushing yards on the season with two games to play. Eleven running backs in 14 games have scorched the 49ers for more than 100 yards rushing.
“The inside linebacker position is the bridge from the D-line to the secondary,” O’Neil said. “They’re so actively involved in everything that takes place in the run game and so actively involved in everything that takes place in the pass game. Those are the guys who run everything. It starts with those guys because they’re the ones commanding the huddle and delivering the play call.
“That’s the one position that’s hard to just plug and play. You can hide guys on other parts of the defense, but inside ‘backer is tough.”