The San Francisco 49ers have played the kind of defense that would lead one to wonder how many shutouts they’d accumulate over the course of the 2011 season. Now they have one. Too bad it came (mostly) without the help of Patrick Willis, who had two rare things happen on one play early on: he let Brit Miller get away on an a tackle attempt, and suffered an injury.

Willis’ hamstring will be a topic of conversation after the game — as it should be — with the injury not looking incredibly severe we can focus on a banner performance by one of the best defenses in franchise history.

St. Louis Rams offensive “output”
49 plays
157 yards (3.2 per play)
8 first downs
4.8 yards per pass play
17 rushes, 19 yards (1.1 yards per carry)
Time of possession: 23:56
2 turnovers

The Rams might have mustered 3-7 points in this game if Sam Bradford started. A.J. Feeley isn’t a very good NFL quarterback. But the Rams’ best offensive player is Steven Jackson, and it was almost as if St. Louis conceded that he’d be a non-factor against the 49ers from the very beginning. Jerious Norwood saw as many touches as Jackson (11 each), and both ended up with 19 yards rushing, with Jackson tacking on an 11-yard reception.

It’s tough to blame the Rams for deciding against using Jackson like they normally would; the 49ers have left opposing running backs battered, bruised and concussed all season. This ended up being a game where the Niners knew they didn’t even really have to worry about the run, all they had to do was put some pressure on Feeley and keep tabs on the Rams’ ordinary group of receivers.

A couple of MVPs named Smith

– If it weren’t for a dropped pass in the end zone that Alex Smith threw perfectly into Vernon Davis’ hands from 40 yards away, Smith would have had 300 yards and 3 touchdowns. In all, his day (17-for-23, 274 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT) was still pretty outstanding. Smith was accurate on pretty much every pass he didn’t throw deep along either sideline, and connected on a deep pass down the middle of the field to Michael Crabtree for a 52-yard TD.

– Aldon Smith had two sacks and a fumble recovery after Ray MacDonald knocked the ball out of Feeley’s hands. His “I’m not celebrating, don’t penalize me” sprint to the bench after his second sack is a sneaky candidate for best celebration of the year for the 49ers.

– Aldon pancaked Adam Goldberg to the point where Goldberg is going to spend all day and night dreading his next offensive line film session.

– That’s 9.5 sacks on the year for Smith, who’s threatening Charles Haley’s record for sacks in a rookie season (12 in 1986). Dana Stubblefield won Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1993 when he recorded 10.5 sacks — the same number accumulated this year by Von Miller of the Denver Broncos, the favorite to win the award this season (but with the way Aldon’s playing, Miller isn’t a 100% lock).

– Larry Grant, who was drafted by the 49ers in the seventh round in 2008 and didn’t make the team, was an absolute demon in place of Willis. That kind of deflates a theory I’ve been hearing a lot lately, that the 49ers should give thanks for all the work Mike Singletary and his staff supposedly did to build the defense that’s allowed the fewest points in the NFL this season. Sorry, they weren’t nearly as good last year (allowing 8 more points per game) and four of this year’s key performers either weren’t used (NaVorro Bowman) or weren’t on the team (Carlos Rogers, Donte Whitner, Aldon Smith) in 2010.

– Blake Costanzo blew up someone on special teams (again). This week Costanzo’s most noticeable shot was the one he put on Eugene Sims during a Ted Ginn punt return. If he isn’t a Pro Bowl special teams coverage guy, nobody is.

– Kyle Williams showed off his jets on that 56-yard touchdown in a game where Braylon Edwards wasn’t missed in the slightest.

– Frank Gore had a pretty average game by his standards, but he did pass Joe Perry in terms of the all-time 49ers leading rusher list … except Perry also rushed for 1,345 yards in his first two seasons when the 49ers were part of the AAFC. At this rate Gore should probably pass Perry’s combined AAFC/NFL stats by the end of next season.

What happened in the red zone, and other offensive difficulties…

– It’s fairly terrible, and one wonders why with two great tight ends (Davis’ drop and fumble notwithstanding) they 49ers don’t have any more creative ideas when the end zone’s in reach than sticking Kendall Hunter in the wildcat.

– It seemed like with the Rams coming in allowing the most yards per carry in the NFL this year (5.3), Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman wanted to put the game in the offensive line’s hands when they got deep into Rams territory. It didn’t work, and while Harbaugh may have wanted to play things close to the vest against a team that clearly wasn’t equipped to score many/any points on on the Niners, it would be nice against good teams to know that once they’re in scoring range that they aren’t so likely to hand the scoring responsibilities to David Akers.

– Mike Iupati had a couple holding penalties and Alex Smith was sacked 4 times, but perhaps the most pathetic performance for a 49ers offensive lineman on one play came from a likely source: Chilo Rachal. Rachal was brought in to play a little H-back on a play where Gore actually gained about 6 or 7 yards. But Rachal almost flinched to the point of drawing a false start flag, then slipped and fell, got up, ran into Gore and then fell on top of him. Alex Smith has taught us that even the most monumental of busts can turn things around, but Rachal’s running out of opportunities.

– Then again, I think we’re getting in retro-Niners territory here as we nitpick after 26-point victories.

Joe Staley made it rain (Gatorade), and some numbers

– The 49ers are 10-2, and became the first team to clinch its division. Harbaugh dodged a good portion of the Gatorade shower bestowed upon him by Mr. Staley, and now the focus moves to keeping their No. 2 seed in play with a win against a feisty-looking Arizona team that pulled off an upset (that I kind of called) against Dallas.

– The last time the 49ers won 10 games: 2002, when they went 10-6.

– The last time the 49ers won 12 games: 2001, when they went 12-4.

– The last time the 49ers had a point differential as high as 127, what it is currently: 2002, when it was 127.

– The last time the 49ers gave up as few as the 13.4 ppg they’ve allowed this season: …

– The last answer wasn’t a typo. The 49ers have never given up 13.4 ppg or fewer in a season. If their offense ever catches up, there’s nothing that can stop this team.