Defense dominates as Niners rout Rams

The defense battled the offense to a 14-14 tie. Throw in a TD by special teams, and you have what the 49ers were Sunday – a team that got it done in every phase of the game. Waking up from a slow start on offense, and playing relentless defense from beginning to end, the Niners recorded a dominant 35-0 win over the St. Louis Rams that firmly establishes them as the team to beat in the NFC West.

In what could be a turning point for a franchise mired in a string of six consecutive losing seasons, the 49ers pushed around an overmatched opponent for 60 minutes, then turned on the gas in the second half to keep the scoreboard flickering with a succession of big-play touchdowns.

Scoring on offense, defense and special teams for the first time in the same game since 1997, the 49ers walked off the field at Candlestick Park on a glorious Sunday afternoon with their most lopsided victory in 87 games and their first shutout in 119 games.

And, at the quarter pole of the season, they are alone atop the NFC West at 3-1, with each of their wins coming at the expense of the other three teams in the division.

Yes, you could say the 49ers made something of a statement after securing their best start to a season since 2002.

"When I look at a win like today," 49ers coach Mike Singletary said, "I feel very fortunate to be on this side of it because I think that some good things happened and they happened because guys were busting their tails trying to make plays and flying around on defense, and flying around on special teams, and fighting on offense."

That's a lot of flying around, but it well describes a defensive effort that limited the Rams to just nine first downs and 177 yards of total offense.

The St. Louis offense ventured past midfield just three times and never came close to the San Francisco end zone. Little did the Rams know when Josh Brown came up just short on a 51-yard field-goal attempt 10 minutes into the game that it would be the closest they'd come to scoring the entire afternoon.

In the process, the 49ers held an opponent scoreless for the first time since their final game of the 2001 season.

"Any day you look up and see a goose egg, it's a great day," said linebacker Patrick Willis, who had a monster game on defense. "We made a step today. People are going to say it's only St. Louis, but that doesn't matter to us."

Willis led the way with an effort that illustrated why he's one of the top impact players in the NFL today and an early frontrunner this season for Defensive Player of the Year honors.

Willis led the 49ers with eight tackles, three of them behind the line of scrimmage, had 2.5 sacks on Rams quarterback Kyle Boller and hit Boller three other times.

But that's not all. Willis also showed his instincts and playmaking skills when he stayed at home in the middle of the field, read Boller's eyes, then stepped in front of receiver Keenan Burton for an interception that Willis returned 23 yards for a touchdown late in the third quarter.

That put the game away at 21-0, and the San Francisco defense put the finishing touches on the rout early in the fourth quarter when Ray McDonald picked up a fumble in the St. Louis backfield and returned it 11 yards for the game's final score with 14:14 to play.

Linebacker Manny Lawson flew into the St. Louis backfield to put a hit on receiver Danny Amendola that left the ball free on the turf and allowed McDonald to make yet another big play by the 49ers' defense.

"We're trying to be the best defense in the league," said Lawson, who contributed five tackles and half a sack. "And a shutout is the ultimate for a defense, and that became the goal as the game went on. And once you get one, you want to get another one."

It looked for a while like the 49ers might need a shutout to put away the pesky Rams, who were playing San Francisco tough on defense in the early going.

With rookie Glen Coffee starting at tailback in place of the injured Frank Gore, the 49ers sputtered throughout the first half on offense, producing just five first downs and one trip past the St. Louis 42-yard line. The 49ers were actually out-gained 113-112 by the Rams at halftime.

San Francisco's 7-0 lead at the point was a product of special teams.

Andy Lee's punt midway through the second quarter hit St. Louis' Quincy Butler as it rolled toward the end zone. Butler followed it past the goal line and then attempted to pick it up, but he was swarmed by San Francisco defenders. Rookie Scott McKillop came up with the loose football at the bottom of the pile for his first NFL touchdown.

"Right place, right time," McKillop said. "It was an important way to start off. The last couple of weeks, we haven't been performing as well on special teams as we'd like to."

The 49ers never did perform as well as they'd like to on offense, but they did get it going in the second half as Coffee (74 yards rushing, 32 receiving) began grinding out yardage on the ground and quarterback Shaun Hill connected for well-thrown touchdown passes of 13 yards to tight end Vernon Davis in the third quarter and 24 yards to receiver Josh Morgan in the fourth quarter.

That offensive surge came after Singletary spoke to his team at halftime, "reminding them what was at stake," as the coach put it afterwards. "I just wanted our guys to remind ourselves that this is our house. We want to set the tempo."

Candlestick Park definitely is Hill's house. He improved to 7-0 on San Francisco's home turf as the team's starter.

Despite being sacked four times and hit on seven other occasions, Hill again was efficient and effective, finishing 14 of 24 for 152 yards and a quarterback rating of 104.9.

"Anytime you see your teammates out there doing great things, it feeds the whole team and it sets off the crowd," Hill said. "It was kind of a lull there in the first half and finally we got it going and stuck with it. The crowd got into it, we got into it and started putting up some points and putting this thing away."

Once the offense finally started catching up with the rest of the team, the 49ers had their most complete victory in the past half-decade.

"Without a doubt, it's a total team win," Hill said. "The defense stepped up and got points. Special teams pushed it from 7-0 to 14-0, and that's huge. Every unit pitched in, even though offensively we didn't do as good as we'd have liked to have done. But we came away with a 35-0 win. That's all that matters."

And so does this: Just four weeks into the season, the first-place 49ers already have a 1½-game lead over their closest pursuer in the NFC West, which is really bigger than that because they've beaten every team in the division.

"We'd like to be 4-0," Hill said. "But we're 3-1 and moving forward. We're on top of the division. That's right where we need to be right now at the quarter mark of the season. But by no means are we done."

After Sunday's wipeout of the Rams, it looks like the 49ers are only getting started.

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