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Eight weeks apart, Arik Armstead had near-identical stops when 49ers needed them most

There is far more certainty about where the 49ers stand in Week 11 than in Week 3.

They entered Sunday’s game as around 10-point favorites against the Arizona Cardinals and tied for the best record in the NFL at 8-1, following a Monday night loss to the Seattle Seahawks that was a play or two from being a win (or a draw).

In Week 3, they were playing their first home game of the season, after opening road wins against the often tricky Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the NFL’s best worst team in the Cincinnati Bengals. Against a Pittsburgh Steelers team which, on paper, they should beat, the 49ers did just about everything possible to lose. In short: They turned it over five times against a Mason Rudolph-led team.

It felt much the same way on Sunday. The 49ers trailed 16-0 after 21 minutes before being jolted to life by a Richie James Jr. cross-field screen pass.

“We just started slow,” said tight end Ross Dwelley, who caught his first two career touchdowns on Sunday. “There’s no real excuse for it. But, you know, Richie gave us life and that play with all the linemen sprinting down the sideline, it just gives you life.”

But, just as in the 24-20 Week 3 win over the Steelers, right when it seemed like the tide had turned and the 49ers had put their woes behind them, ready to slam the door shut on their opposition, there was failure of the highest order.

After stretching to 17-13 lead against the Steelers thanks to a pair of Jeff Wilson Jr. rushing touchdowns, the Steelers responded with a touchdown of their own. Jason Verrett was burned by Diontae Johnson on back-to-back plays (first for a deep defensive pass interference call, and then a touchdown), creating a 20-17 deficit.

On Sunday, Garoppolo allowed the Cardinals to steal a 19-17 lead thanks to a wretched interception intended for Emmanuel Sanders. However, he came back on the next drive to throw his third touchdown pass of the day. After two to Dwelley, he hit Kendrick Bourne in the end zone. Followed by a confusing, failed two-point conversion attempt, the 49ers had a 23-19 lead. But Murray and the Cardinals hit right back, making it 26-23. Just like in the Steelers matchup, the 49ers were down a field goal in the fourth quarter.

No matter, right? Not quite.

In Week 3, starting with 10:22 on the clock, the 49ers trudged down to the red zone and were poised to at least come away with a game-tying field goal. Instead, Richie James Jr. motioned in front of the snap, which hit him at the 11-yard line and was recovered by the Steelers’ T.J. Watt, giving Pittsburgh the ball with 6:49 remaining.

On Sunday, that experience was similar. The 49ers, starting with 9:35 on the clock, moved the ball down to the Cardinals’ 24-yard-line. Then Garoppolo threw a pass behind Ross Dwelley that was intercepted, allowing Arizona to take over with 4:32 on the clock.

The unifying factor in both games, at these crucial junctures, was Arik Armstead. In both situations, the defense needed a stop, and on both occasions, Armstead provided it in impressive fashion.

Against the Steelers (shown above), he tracked down James Conner and popped the ball loose. Nine plays and a Dante Pettis touchdown catch later, the 49ers had taken back the lead at 24-20. Followed by another defensive stop, it sealed the win.

On Sunday, the 49ers had one fewer timeout (two left) than in Week 3, and with 2:17 less time. A stop was necessary, and yet again, Armstead obliged. He chased down the ever-elusive Kyler Murray for a sack, nearly causing a fumble in the process. Armstead said he was more excited about the win, but said the two plays felt similar.

And just like in Week 3, Garoppolo followed it up with a game-winning touchdown pass, this time to Wilson Jr. (the other common denominator) to make it 27-23 who was taking his first snap of the game. It was followed, yet again, by a defensive stop, this time in the way of a Damontre Moore forced fumble which effectively sealed the game.

DeForest Buckner said after the game that he was upset the fumble and ensuing touchdown didn’t count, but that he was ecstatic for his defensive line partner, who now leads the 49ers with 8.0 sacks on the year.

“He’s balling,” said DeForest Buckner. “He’s balling right now. It’s just great to see. He’s definitely had some adversity going through his career and just to see him having the season that he’s having right now, it’s great to see. It’s finally coming all together for him. I’m still mad that they took away that strip-sack for a touchdown because that was one hell of a play.”


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