Gritty Grant fine fill-in for wounded Willis

NaVorro Bowman called it a "shocker" when the seemingly indestructible Patrick Willis went down with a hamstring injury after just five defensive plays Sunday against the Rams. But surprisingly – if not shockingly – the 49ers' rugged defense hardly skipped a beat without him. That's because Larry Grant stepped in capably to fill Willis' shoes, leaving the Niners confident that he can do it again.

And Grant probably will need to do it again, because the 49ers don't want to – or need to – take any chances with Willis, the four-time Pro Bowler and heart of their defense at inside linebacker.

Willis had a MRI exam earlier this week on his injured right hamstring and will not require surgery, but he will require some rest. With the luxury of already having wrapped up the NFC West title and a playoff berth with four games still remaining – the result of their 26-0 blanking of St. Louis – the Niners probably will lean toward caution and keep Willis out of Sunday's divisional rematch against the Cardinals in Arizona.

That would leave a rather conspicuous hole in the San Francisco defense, a unit that's built around Willis, a first- or second-team All-Pro in each of his first four NFL seasons and the league's leading tackler in 2007 and 2009.

Willis was hurt when he landed awkwardly after missing a tackle on St. Louis fullback Brit Miller during an 18-yard completion with 4:28 left in the first quarter. It was the first time in his career that Willis' name did not show up on a gamebook defensive statistics sheet.

Nonetheless, Willis is enjoying yet another standout season with 93 tackles, two sacks, four forced fumbles, two recovered fumbles and 13 passes defensed. He is being talked about in some circles as a strong candidate for NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors.

But Grant – the fourth-year pro who began his career with the 49ers as their seventh-round draft pick in 2008 – stepped in and played so well that the Niners barely missed their defensive leader.

As the team's No. 3 inside linebacker, Grant hadn't seen much action on defense this year behind every-down stalwarts Willis and Bowman, who leads the 49ers and ranks fifth in the NFL with 110 tackles. But Grant was ready when called upon against the Rams.

"Larry, he did a great job in stepping in," Bowman said. "My hat goes off to him. Once the game got going on, me and Larry got on the same page and we just did a great job of continuing to stop them."

Grant played a major role in one of San Francisco's most dominant defensive performances in a season that has featured several of them. He tied Bowman for team-high honors with six tackles – two of them for losses – and he also drilled St. Louis quarterback A.J. Feeley for an eight-yard loss on a third-down sack to halt the Rams' final offensive drive of the first half.

Grant was in the middle of the action for a San Francisco defense that limited the Rams to just 157 yards of total offense and completely stuffed them on the ground, limiting St. Louis to just 31 yards rushing on 23 carries, a 1.9 average.

Grant also had a big-time hit on Rams running back Steven Jackson that caused Grant's helmet to go flying in the air. Grant, a big-hitter, celebrated wildly after the play.

It was reminiscent of another ferocious hit Grant had on a kickoff coverage in Week 3 at Cincinnati, one of the few times the cameras locked on Grant this season for his standout play. Grant's contributions have come this season primarily on special teams, where he is one of San Francisco's top performers on those units.

Until Willis went down.

"(Grant)'s got a high level of contact courage," Niners coach Jim Harbaugh said. "We've seen it all year. I was very impressed with Larry's play. We've got a lot of confidence in Larry Grant as a football player. You could hear his play in the ball game. I know I heard it from where I was. It was a physical game style of football that he plays."

Grant has displayed that style of football before, and not just previously this season on San Francisco's special teams. He started eight games at linebacker last year for the Rams, recording 23 tackles and two sacks. He rejoined the 49ers as a free agent this summer.

Now his role figures to increase down the stretch. Willis didn't practice Wednesday, and it appears likely he'll sit out Sunday against the Cardinals. Which means Grant could be preparing for his first start with the team that originally drafted him.

"I'm happy to be back and I'm blessed," said Grant, who grew up in San Francisco, right near Candlestick Park. "Pat is the heart and soul of our defense, and hopefully he'll be back for us (soon). Hopefully, he heals fast. He's our guy."

But the 49ers are just fine with Grant being the guy in Willis' place as long as it takes for him to get better.

"Everybody believes in him," Harbaugh said. "I wasn't surprised that he went in and played well. I think everybody understands that Larry is an outstanding football player."

Harbaugh continued: "Larry puts a lot into this on a daily basis. We see him every day. In fact, we see him sometimes on Tuesdays (the usual players' day off). Larry's out there getting extra reps on Tuesday. He's just been fantastic all year long. He's not a talkative guy when it comes to being a self promoter or anything like that. He just consistently plays hard, hustles, plays physical. Takes a lot of pride in his own personal performance. You see it every day from our standpoint. You expect it."

And now, at least for a while, the Niners figure to be seeing even more of it.

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