Column: With challenges ahead for unbeaten Rams, the defense gets its act together in 39-10 win over 49ers

Rams linebacker Trevon Young (49) shows off the football to teammates Troy Hill and Lamarcus Joyner (20) after intercepting a pass in the first half against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday in Santa Clara.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Much as they looked like highlighters in their bright yellow, retina-burning uniforms Sunday, the undefeated Rams didn’t stockpile a bunch of offensive highlights.

Yes, in their 39-10 rout of the San Francisco 49ers they had their most prolific game this season. But this game was about the Rams defense — and right on time.

That defense had struggled in recent weeks, surrendering 31 points each to Minnesota and Seattle in consecutive games before a more focused effort in a 23-20 victory at Denver in Week 6.


Sunday, the Rams were smothering, sacking quarterback C.J. Beathard seven times, picking off two of his passes — both in spectacular fashion — and collecting two fumbles.

“It was about time for the dam to break for this defense,” defensive end Michael Brockers said. “We had our struggle game versus Seattle, and we don’t want to get back to that.”

The timing of that is monumental, considering the next four quarterbacks the Rams will face are Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, New Orleans’ Drew Brees, Seattle’s Russell Wilson and Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes. That’s three players with Super Bowl rings, and the hottest young passer in the game.

“Honestly, we feel satisfied after what we did today,” linebacker Mark Barron said. “We obviously want to keep getting better, but we feel like we went out and played a great game.”

No one was better than Aaron Donald, last season’s NFL defensive player of the year, a wrecking ball who collected four sacks, including one in which he mercilessly wheeled center Weston Richburg back on roller skates into Beathard.

Late in the first quarter, when the Rams offense was sputtering a bit, Donald took matters into his hands. In this case, “matters” meant the football. He ripped it out of the arms of running back Matt Breida in a move that required sledgehammer strength and savvy.


“The way I came off, I just got my arm in the ball and just felt it,” Donald said. “Then I just tugged and got the football.”

Two years ago, it was Donald who got ripped out of this matchup, ejected for making contact with an official during the Rams’ humiliating 28-0 defeat at Levi’s Stadium.

Times have changed. Now, the Lakers have LeBron, and, in Donald, the Rams have L.A. Brawn.

Then again, this defensive masterpiece wasn’t a virtuoso performance. Cornerback Troy Hill, coming off a terrible game in Denver when he was repeatedly targeted, used impeccable timing to make a diving interception.

“Personally, that’s a big, big weight off my shoulders,” Hill said. “I know what I’m capable of … when I was looking at my film from last week, there were a lot of bad eyes and things like that. Today was more about my technique and letting the game come to me.”

Safety John Johnson had an impressive interception, too, breaking up a pass intended for tight end George Kittle and then snaring the floating ball.


“Initially, I was just trying to knock it down, but I ended up kind of tipping it to him,” Johnson said. “So I just fought for it as long as I could and came up with the ball. It kind of happened in slow motion.”

The Rams are moving in fast-forward. At 7-0, they have a 1½-game lead over the rest of the NFC, with only 5-1 New Orleans within immediate striking range.

And the Rams’ league-leading point differential is lapping the field at 107. By comparison, the other three teams in the NFC West are a combined minus-126.

The Rams could be 4-5 the rest of the way and still match their prodigious record of 11-5 in coach Sean McVay’s first season.

They are coming off three consecutive road victories and are 12-1 away from home under McVay, counting last season’s victory in London.

On paper, brushing aside the 49ers (1-6) was not an especially difficult task. Yet, this San Francisco team had the Chargers and Green Bay down in the fourth quarter, and has a shrewd offensive schemer in coach Kyle Shanahan. What’s more, strange things can happen in division games. But the Rams continued their pattern of winning games they should win.


“A game like this is definitely a trap game, where you have one of the best teams versus one of the worst teams,” Brockers said. “The best team could come out and be lackadaisical, and the other team could come up and surprise them, man.”

There were no surprises Sunday. Only a defensive awakening that’s unpleasant news for Green Bay and beyond.

Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer