49ers defense is rounding into form

Evan Vucci/APThe 49ers' defense bottled up Robert Griffin III on Monday night and will look to do the same against the Rams on Sunday.

SANTA CLARA — There's a good vibe in the San Francisco locker room as the 49ers prepare to hit the December stretch run, and it resonates around a defense coming off one of its most dominant performances of the season.

The 49ers turned up pressure on the Washington Redskins on Monday night, giving the team a sense that a defense that carried San Francisco to the Super Bowl last season is hitting stride and ready and able to do it again.

Outside linebackers Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith each had two sacks and combined for six hits on quarterback Robert Griffin III during a 27-6 rout of the Redskins, signaling a return to top form by a defense that lost All-Pro players such as Smith and linebacker Patrick Willis for several games earlier this season.

“Pressure is a good thing,” coach Jim Harbaugh said Friday. “Our defense is doing a heck of a job, playing really well together. Playing within the framework of the defense and a lot of really good players that are well coached.”

The 49ers (7-4) have allowed an average of 12.5 points over their past eight games, a stretch that began with a September shut down of the St. Louis Rams (5-6), who come to San Francisco on Sunday for a NFC West rematch.

The 49ers won 35-11 at St. Louis to begin a five-game winning streak after a 1-2 start, and their defense has taken off ever since. Even during a recent two-game losing streak that put San Francisco's two-year reign as NFC West champion in jeopardy, the defense played well in a one-point loss to Carolina and a three-point loss at New Orleans.

Those defeats dropped San Francisco to the No. 6 seed in the NFC playoff picture, and the defense responded the next week by limiting the Redskins to 190 total yards, only 90 of which came through the air.

That effort was spearheaded by a game-high 11 tackles from Willis and Smith's first sacks since he returned three weeks ago from a five-game absence. Smith left the team in late September to do a stint in rehab, and the 49ers also were without Willis for two games during that stretch due to a groin injury.

But everybody is better now, and the results are showing for a defense that has climbed to sixth in the NFL rankings.

“We feel like this defense can take us where we want to go,” said strong safety Donte Whitner, one of seven San Francisco defenders to either make the Pro Bowl or an All-Pro team last season. “We had some injuries earlier, Pat was out, Aldon's situation, but now we've got everybody back and we feel like we can play like that every week. We just have to bring that edge each and every week. It's not easy to do, but we have the type of character guys that can get it done.”

Like it has most of the season, San Francisco's defense kept the 49ers close against the Redskins until the offense awakened in the second half to turn a four-point halftime lead into a lopsided victory.

“That's why the vibe here is so good,” Whitner said. “We lost two games before this (Washington) game, one was by one point and we felt the last one was on a technicality. You want to get hot at the right time, late November, December, then have that roll on into the playoffs. That's where we feel like we're at right now.”

Notes: WR Michael Crabtree spoke with the media Friday for the first time this week after being activated to the 53-man roster Tuesday. Crabtree, returning from a torn Achilles tendon in May, has practiced all week and said he expects to play against the Rams. “It's time for me to go,” Crabtree said. “I feel comfortable enough to go out there and play.” . CB Tarell Brown (ribs), G Mike Iupati (knee), DT Ray McDonald (ankle) and TE Garrett Celek didn't practice again Friday and were listed as questionable to play against St. Louis. All four sat out the Washington game.

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