MIAMI — The phrase is well worn. But as long as the method works, it’ll continue to be often used.
“Defense wins championships.”
That’s the basic approach of the 2019-20 San Francisco 49ers, who take on the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday in Super Bowl LIV in Miami. The 49ers defense ranked second in the NFL this season in yards allowed (4,509), No. 1 in passing defense (169.2 yards per game) and third in the NFC in points allowed (19.4).
All gas, no brake, all about that action.
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) January 1, 2020
In the Chiefs, the stout San Francisco defense will meet the No. 5 scoring offense (28.2 points per game) and No. 5 passing offense (281.1 yards per game). To be fair, the 49ers offense is no slouch — ranking No. 2 in scoring (29.9 points) and No. 2 in rushing (144.1 yards) — but how much the San Fran defense can contain Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes is likely to weigh heavily on the outcome.
This is the result of the organization investing in defense years ago. It’s paid off this season, largely thanks to a pair of roommates and first-round picks.
Defensive end Arik Armstead was the 49ers first-round pick in 2015 (17th overall), and he’s started every game the past two years. This season, he led the team in sacks with a career-high 10.0, while also adding 54 tackles and two forced fumbles.
In 2016, the 49ers selected Armstead’s roommate from the University of Oregon, DeForest Buckner (seventh overall), a fellow defensive end who’s been a full-time starter for four years. He finished third on team in sacks this season with 7.5, adding 61 tackles, four fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles. Buckner’s breakout year came last season, when he totaled 12 sacks and made a trip to the Pro Bowl.
Both men have kept God at their forefront in leading San Francisco to its first winning season since 2013.
“You’ve got to put God first, man,” Buckner told Sports Spectrum this week. “Without Him, without His plan for me, I wouldn’t be here where I am today. I truly believe that. … Every day I give thanks because all my talent, all the things I’ve done in my life, all the glory goes to Him.”
Armstead calls it “a true blessing” to be in the Super Bowl. A pending free agent, Super Bowl LIV could be Armstead’s last game with the team that drafted him.
“[Faith] is super important to me. That’s the foundation, my backbone, everything that I believe in. My family instilled that into me at a young age and we grew up in the church,” Armstead told Sports Spectrum this week.
"God has blessed me in many ways and I think this year I'm trying to find out how He wants to use me and how I can glorify Him in what I do."
— Sports Spectrum (@Sports_Spectrum) February 1, 2020
One of the ways Buckner and Armstead and many of the other believers on the team stay growing in their faith is through meeting with team chaplain Earl Smith, who has served the 49ers since 1997.
“Pastor Earl, he’s always a joy to see,” Buckner said. “No matter how bad your day is, seeing him in the locker room always brightens your day. He always has some wisdom to give you. I always make sure to go out of my way to make sure I get a little prayer in with him. We pray as a team and everything before games, but I always make sure to find him in the locker room so we can have our own little prayer together.”
“Pastor Earl has been doing a great job,” Armstead said. “Playing on Sundays, it’s tough to make it to church always, so he does a great job of giving us messages throughout the week and stuff to think about to try to continue to grow closer to God.”
Both men say there are influential women in their lives too.
“One person that really helped me connect with my faith even more was my wife (Ashlyn),” said Buckner, who was married in 2018. “She really helped me connect with my faith a lot more.”
“My mom’s a praise and worship pastor at our church now currently,” said Armstead, whose dad was also a pastor. “She’s always done a great job of keeping us level-headed and always remembering the important things and the reason why we’re so blessed in the situations we’re in in life. Anything that we go through, that’s what we rely on is Christ. She always does a great job of reminding us of that.”
Armstead says he is certainly seeing God’s blessings this season and in the year to come. He put together his finest season as a pro right before hitting free agency, meaning he’s likely to earn a substantial pay raise with his next contract, whether that be with San Francisco or another team. And he’s engaged, getting ready to be married this offseason.
In the midst of the blessings, he strives to make sure he’s in God’s will.
“This year the biggest thing for me is trying to find how He wants to use me and how I can glorify Him in what I do,” Armstead said, “and use my platform and resources to bless others and glorify Him.”
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