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The 49ers are the new bullies in the NFC West

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The Seahawks and Rams have had their chance to be bullies in the division. Now it’s the 49ers’ time.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Los Angeles Rams Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

So much for growing pains and another third-place finish in the division. The 49ers are on top of the NFC West and are now the team to beat in the division. They proved that with a defensive masterpiece against the rival Rams in Week 6, improving to 5-0 on the season as the only remaining unbeaten team in the NFC.

The final score of 20-7 doesn’t do the 49ers’ domination against the Rams any justice, either. Sean McVay had 10 days to prepare for the new-look 49ers, who were coming off a short week after Monday Night Football. His offense accomplished virtually nothing beyond the opening drive, which included zero passes.

When the Rams did start passing, it went poorly. Jared Goff was under pressure for most of the game, and was sacked four times for a loss of 22 yards. He was also stripped of the football twice, losing one fumble. They hit him a lot, and that resulted in some seriously shaky numbers. His 78 passing yards are a career low and put him in some pretty dubious company, like Charlie Whitehurst.

After the 49ers destroyed the much-hyped Browns in Week 5, we still wondered if the 49ers were the real deal. With their win over the reigning NFC champions, it’s official: these 49ers are legit contenders.

McVay had no answers for the 49ers’ pass rush

Dig a little deeper, and there are even uglier stats. The Rams had just 10 first downs all game, and only one of them came via a passing play — a 12-yard gain on their final possession. Los Angeles went 0-for-9 on third down and 0-for-4 on fourth down. San Francisco wasn’t giving up an inch in coverage and the pass rush was all over Goff on every play.

The 49ers allowed just 157 total yards, the fewest for the Rams in the McVay era. The same applies for their net 50 passing yards, their 10 first downs, and their zero third-down conversions — all the lowest in a game since McVay took over. The Rams are now on a three-game losing skid (the first under McVay) after being the favorite in the division throughout the offseason.

The Rams had no answers for anything the 49ers defense did, and McVay didn’t help things with questionable playcalling in key situations. Most notably, the Rams — without Todd Gurley due to injury — called three consecutive runs inside the 49ers’ 5-yard line, and wound up turning it over on downs at the 1-yard line. It was 7-7 at the time, and Los Angeles could have picked up some much-needed momentum with a score.

Given the ferocity of the 49ers’ defensive line this season and during Sunday’s game, the fact that McVay could come up with nothing better than three Malcolm Brown runs made it a day to forget for the young coach.

Robert Saleh has built a defense that can carry the team

The 49ers’ worst plays of the day all came on the offensive side of the ball. Jimmy Garoppolo threw a terrible interception in the red zone, and rushing yards were harder to come by than usual. The tandem of Tevin Coleman and Matt Breida only produced 80 yards, while the 49ers were averaging 200 yards rushing going into Sunday.

Those offensive struggles didn’t matter in the end. Instead, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh orchestrated a strifling defensive attack that had the Rams in constant disarray.

To illustrate how things have changed, it’s worth looking at how bad the 49ers defense was last season. San Francisco had the 11th-worst pass defense in the league last year, allowing 233.3 passing yards per game. The 49ers also allowed 27.2 points per game, fifth-worst in the league. Going into Week 6, the 49ers were ranked second in the league in passing defense (175.8 yards allowed per game) and fourth in points allowed with 14.3, and they kept the usually-potent Rams offense under both.

The defense has improved in big-play categories, too. Last season, they managed just two interceptions and had a turnover differential of minus-25, the worst in the league by seven turnovers. They had 37 sacks, tied for eighth-worst in the league. Yeah, this was not a play-making unit. It is now, though — with seven interceptions, five recovered fumbles, and 15 sacks through five games.

The additions of Dee Ford and Nick Bosa have been huge, and another year removed from his injuries, Richard Sherman is once again playing like an All-Pro. Add in the linebacking skills of Kwon Alexander to fill the rather large hole that has existed since both Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman left, and the 49ers are a completely different team on that side of the ball.

That’s just as important to their future success as Shanahan’s offense finally cooking, because it can be counted on when the offense is shut down.

The NFC West is still going to be a fight — the Seahawks are 5-1 and the Rams can’t be counted out at 3-3 — but the 49ers now should be favored in that fight. The Seahawks had their run of being the most-feared team in the division when the Legion of Boom was running the show. The Rams took over that mantle when McVay came in.

Now it’s the 49ers’ turn to the bullies in the division.