49ers' dominant defense makes statement in suffocating Jared Goff

LOS ANGELES -- As he has after each of the San Francisco 49ers’ five wins this season, cornerback Richard Sherman stepped to the podium dressed in a maroon suit topped with a Niners hat and began preaching the gospel of his team and, more specifically, his defense.

As skeptics have pointed to the Niners' supposedly weak schedule and found other ways to question their legitimacy, Sherman has served as the unofficial team spokesman and defender against the doubters.

This time, after the Niners had smothered the Los Angeles Rams 20-7 on Sunday, Sherman wanted to hand out individual plaudits. He went one by one, naming nearly all of his defensive teammates and crediting them for their role in what has quickly become one of the most dominant units in the NFL.

As one of the founding fathers of Seattle's "Legion of Boom," Sherman knows better than anyone what it's like to be part of a great defense. He's made it clear that he doesn't want these Niners to be lumped in that group just yet but is not afraid to lay out what the end game is for these San Francisco Avengers.

"Hopefully they give us that kind of respect," Sherman said. "Hopefully we earn that kind of respect. That's what we aspire to. You aspire to every year be compared to some of the greatest defenses of all times. The '85 Bears, the 2000 Ravens and the Steel Curtain. All you can do is take it one week at a time."

Through five games, nobody can deny that this edition of the 49ers defense is already one of the best in the league -- if not the best. That message was hammered home Sunday with every crunching hit on Rams quarterback Jared Goff and crafty pass breakup by a defensive back.

When the beatdown was over and there was time to sift through the wreckage, what was left was a shell of the once high-powered Rams offense. Sean McVay's prized unit finished with a measly 165 yards of total offense, averaged 3.3 yards per play and went a combined 0-for-13 on third and fourth down.

The Rams' woeful conversion rate was the most attempts on third and fourth down without a conversion since the 2010 Chicago Bears were 0-for-14 against the Giants, and, according to Elias Sports Bureau, was the first time the 49ers held an opponent without a conversion since Oct. 16, 1988, coincidentally also in a road game against the Rams.

Goff's day was even worse, as he finished 13-of-24 for 78 yards (the fewest in his career), took four sacks and didn't complete a pass that traveled more than 8 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. He averaged 2.2 air yards on his completions, the second lowest mark of his career and lowest since the final game of his rookie season.

Adding last week's shutdown of the Cleveland Browns’ passing game, the 49ers have held opponents under 100 yards passing in back-to-back games for the first time since 1990.

After the game, Goff found himself searching for answers and acknowledging that the Niners left a lasting impression.

"They've got a lot of good players, they've got a lot of good coaches," Goff said. "They're coached very well, and defensively, they've got some dudes up front who do their thing. They're going to give a lot of teams some problems."

On Sunday, for the first time this season, the Niners took a punch to the face right away, as the Rams ran it seven straight times to score a touchdown and jump to a 7-0 lead. There was no panic on the sideline, as coordinator Robert Saleh made a couple of minor adjustments to sew up the holes in the run defense.

In recent years, perhaps that message wouldn't have been received, but with a defense that boasts older, more experienced (not to mention more talented) veterans, it was heard loud and clear.

After the initial drive, the Rams ran 43 more plays and gained an average of just 2.5 yards on those snaps. They didn't score again.

"There was no panic on the sidelines," said Saleh, who is quickly becoming a hot commodity on lists of future head-coaching candidates. "What'd we get? What do we need to do? How can we fix this? And the guys went out there and still played and kept that relentless attitude. There was absolutely no panic. Didn't need to change our calls, didn't need to change the structure of the defense."

So far, the 49ers' defensive structure has worked just fine. Through their first five games, the Niners rank second in the NFL in yards allowed per game (237.4), yards per play allowed (4.29) and points allowed per game (12.8), are first in passing yards allowed per game (150.2) and are tied for third in takeaways (12).

The offseason additions of edge rushers Nick Bosa and Dee Ford has transformed the Niners’ defense. Kyle Shanahan has been coaching in the league in some capacity since 2003 and has rarely had a defense that he trusts as implicitly as he already does this one.

That trust has changed how Shanahan calls games like Sunday's, where he knew his defense would step up even if the offense wasn't moving the chains.

"After that [first drive], I had a feeling that if you just don’t turn it over, we'll win this game," Shanahan said. "I haven't had that feeling very much in my career, but the defense definitely gave that to me the whole game."

Despite the early-season run of dominance, the challenges will get more difficult and the praise will intensify with continued success. That's why, while most 49ers defenders are unafraid to talk about how good this defense can be -- Bosa called it a "championship defense" after the game -- Sherman is always going to step to that podium to help conjure up some motivation.

"It doesn't matter who you are, what you do, how great you think you’re doing, somebody's gonna be criticizing," Sherman said. "You appreciate that criticism. Because you don't want everybody patting you on your back, making you feel good about yourself. That's fake, too. That makes people soft and complacent. And we're not gonna get complacent. We're worried about ourselves."