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Notebook: Defense Notches First Shutout

Posted Dec 4, 2011

The small pink abrasion below Larry Grant’s right eye hadn’t finished swelling, but it spoke volumes about the historic Sunday afternoon that took place at Candlestick Park.

As Grant stood and smiled in the 49ers postgame locker room, his teammates clad in their 2011 NFC West Champions hats and T-shirts, it was clear the deed was done. Despite losing defensive captain Patrick Willis on the second drive of the game, the 49ers shut out the St. Louis Rams 26-0 to clinch their first playoff berth in nine seasons.

“It couldn’t be better right now,” Grant said. “NFC West champs, going to the playoffs.”

Grant’s battle wound was the result of a jarring blow he delivered in the second half, stuffing Rams running back Steven Jackson near the line of scrimmage. As Jackson went to the ground, Grant’s helmet went skyward.

No headgear? No problem.

“I didn’t feel it until afterwards,” Grant said. “I was too excited.”

By that time, Grant had plenty of adrenaline coursing through his veins. Filling in for Willis, Grant thrived in his every-down role, totaling six tackles and sack while directing the defensive play calls. Not to mention he was competing against the team he played for the first three years of his career.

Though Willis’ trademark No. 52 jersey wasn’t flying around the field after he suffered an early hamstring injury, the tightfisted 49ers defense looked just the same. The Rams racked up just 157 yards on offense, the talented Jackson could only muster 19 rushing yards, and there was a giant goose egg attached to St. Louis’ name on the scoreboard.

“I don’t know what words out there can explain the feeling, the spirit I have right now,” nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga said. “It’s a blessing. I give thanks to our whole coaching staff, our whole San Francisco 49ers family for being that one spirit, one heart. It’s just so amazing. So ridiculous.”

For Sopoaga and many other members of the 49ers, the playoffs have been a long time coming. But through 12 games this year, it looks like they’ve found their winning formula.

Following their first shutout of the year, the 49ers lowered their points allowed average to just 13.4 per game, tops in the NFL. And they did it on a day when Willis spent most of his afternoon in street clothes on the sideline, further proving how good the entire unit can be.

“I guess it sends a message to our opponents,” rookie linebacker Aldon Smith said. “Just lets them know that we’re serious, we work hard and when we come out and play we’re going to be ready.”

Smith sent plenty of messages to the Rams on Sunday, as he could be seen celebrating after a few of his big plays. The No. 7 overall pick in this year’s draft had three tackles and two sacks, the third time this season he’s recorded at least two sacks in the same game.

Following his second sack of Rams quarterback A.J. Feeley, who started in place of the injured Sam Bradford, Smith bolted for the 49ers sideline before taking a quick seat on the bench, as it forced a punt midway though the fourth quarter. Smith likened it to running home after a long day at school.

“I was tired,” Smith said. “That was a hard sprint.”

Smith also recovered a fumble and Dashon Goldson recorded his fourth interception of the year, as the 49ers pushed their turnover margin to plus-18, the best mark in the NFL.

And although his team was fresh off its best statistical performance of the year, Ricky Jean Francois didn’t sound like a man content.

“You can’t settle for anything,” Jean Francois said. “If we settle for something that means we’re going to stop somewhere at some point and fail. At no given point are we going to believe we put a complete game together. We’re not going to believe we did good enough until we get the ultimate goal.”

Notes and Quotes

49ers president and chief executive officer Jed York could be seen in the 49ers locker room after the game shaking hands and congratulating players and coaches. But he wasn’t wearing any NFC West Champions gear; not with the bigger goals in mind.

“This isn’t the last hat and T-Shirt that I want,” York said.

Running back Frank Gore rushed the ball 21 times for 73 yards and surpassed Joe “The Jet” Perry to become the all-time leading rusher in 49ers history. Quarterback Alex Smith also had a stellar day for the offense, going 17-of-23 for 274 yards, while tossing a 52-yard touchdown to Michael Crabtree and a 56-yard score to Kyle Williams.

Kicker David Akers went a perfect 4-of-4 on the afternoon and is now 32-of-37 on the year. With his third successful field goal try of the afternoon, Akers surpassed Jeff Wilkins’ single-season franchise mark of 30, which was set in 1996.

The 49ers defense hasn’t given up a rushing touchdown all year and extended its streak of not allowing a 100-yard rusher to 34 straight games.

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