SANTA CLARA -- DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead have known each other for a long time now. They were roommates at the University of Oregon and leaders of a dominant Ducks defensive front, with a working partnership extended by the 49ers.
Armstead and Buckner were first-round picks in 2015 and '16 respectively, creating great potential along the 49ers' defensive line finally realized this season.
While flashy newcomers Nick Bosa and Dee Ford get a lion’s share of attention for 2019’s defensive dominance, let’s not forget that Buckner was a second-team All-Pro and Armstead led the team in sacks in a breakout year.
These two revel in each other’s success and are excited to play Super Bowl LIV against the Kansas City Chiefs together, especially after going through some hard times.
“It has been awesome,” Buckner said Friday. “Coming in as a rookie already having one of my good friends and college roommates on the team already, who's been in a similar position as me, getting drafted in the first round and being the team's first pick the year before, and really helping me transition into the locker room and having a guy to really bounce ideas off of throughout the year.
“It has been really beneficial for me, and it's been fun, especially this year. We had a lot of good times at Oregon and then we went through a rough patch here the past couple of years. To finally have this year, everything happening the right way and getting here to the “big dance,” it has been one hell of a ride.”
This ride isn’t over yet. There’s one more game to play on Feb. 2 against the Chiefs, where the Oregon alums will be vital to victory.
The 49ers rotate eight defensive linemen, but they make the most hay when Bosa, Buckner, Armstead and Ford line up together. Armstead generally plays end in the base package, frequently sliding inside next to Buckner on obvious passing downs.
That’s when these longtime friends can create havoc.
“It’s great to play next to him,” Armstead said. “Teams often give him a lot of attention, which makes my job easier. Or, sometimes the focus comes my way and he has a favorable matchup. He and I working together puts pressure on the offense.”
Interior pressure is always important. It prevents opposing quarterbacks from stepping up in the pocket, often flushing signal callers out of their comfort zone. The 49ers have talked all week about executing a coordinated, disciplined pass rush that shuts down escape routes for Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes, the reigning NFL MVP.
He’s both a threat to run outright and sidestep pressure long enough to make plays down the field.
“As a defensive line, you need to go and attack all day and once you put out the run and you start pass-rushing," Buckner said, " you want to consistently put pressure in his face, whether it's just pressure up the middle, off the edge, getting hit and also getting sacks. So, you just want to make him uncomfortable. You don't want to have him back there because a quarterback like him, when he has time to throw, he'll make you pay. We just need to do a really good job rushing as a unit.”
It’s hard, if not impossible, to find a more talented pass-rushing unit in the NFL. The 49ers work hard to stop the run, take teams off schedule and then release the hounds on third-and-long situations.
“It’s super important to get there in four,” Armstead said. “We want the most guys possible back in coverage while still generating pressure. We take pride in that.
“It has been great to play with those guys and work hard for one another. We have a lot of fun making plays in this defense. Big plays are contagious. When somebody makes one, the others want to join the party.”