SANTA CLARA (AP) — There's a price to pay for those who venture across the middle of the San Francisco 49ers' defense.
Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner are making sure of that.
The territory patrolled by the hard-hitting safeties has become a danger zone this season for San Francisco opponents, several of whom have had to be helped off the field after getting leveled by one of the two veterans — or both at the same time.
Their impact was felt simultaneously by the New Orleans Saints last week, when one of Goldson's big hits led to an interception Whitner returned for the touchdown that put the 49ers in control on their way to a 31-21 victory.
That was one of two interceptions returned for touchdowns at New Orleans by the San Francisco defense, which feels it has something to prove this week at St. Louis after one of its worst performances of the season led to a 24-24 overtime tie with the Rams three weeks ago.
Sluggish coming out of their bye week, the 49ers allowed a season-worst 458 yards to a pedestrian St. Louis offense in that game — 114 yards more than San Francisco has allowed in any other game this year.
But the NFL's second-ranked defense returned to form the next two weeks in bruising victories over Chicago and New Orleans, with Goldson and Whitner delivering several crunching blows among their combined 14 tackles against the Saints.
The latter performance had defensive coordinator Vic Fangio talking this week about how tough it has become for opposing receivers to go across the middle against his aggressive and opportunistic unit.
"If they watch enough film, they'll see that there are some landmines in there that they might step on," Fangio said.
Goldson and Whitner have put a collection of ferocious hits on film since they became partners on the back end of San Francisco's defense last season. But those hits seem to be coming now at an even more frequent pace.
Goldson, coming off his first Pro Bowl season, doesn't want anybody to feel safe testing the ground that he covers.
"It's a mindset thing every week coming out there and letting your presence be known and felt every time a guy catches a ball across the middle," Goldson said Friday. "When you come across the middle against us, it's not going to be easy. There's no giveaways around here. When you come back there, it's definitely a toll you have to pay."
Goldson's feisty hits took a toll on the Saints, particularly when he upended receiver Marques Colston on a deep pass over the middle early in the third quarter with the 49ers clinging to a 21-14 lead.
Colston left his feet to grab a throw from Drew Brees, but Goldson hit him low as the ball arrived and flipped Colston in the air. The ball deflected off Colston's hands and was intercepted by Whitner, who followed a convey of teammates around the left side for a 42-yard touchdown return.
Colston crashed to the Superdome turf head-first and was down on the carpet several minutes before finally being helped off the field. That's a scenario that has been repeated by San Francisco opponents several times this season, most notably Goldson's violent collision with Early Doucet that knocked out the Arizona receiver during the 49ers' Oct. 29 rout of the Cardinals.
The aggressive tone set by San Francisco's safeties has had a ripple effect throughout the secondary and has contributed to the team's notable improvement defending the pass. The 49ers rank second in the NFL in pass defense after finishing 16th in that category last season.
Goldson said he, Whitner and the 49ers will be bringing more of the same in this week's rematch with the Rams, who jumped out to a 14-0 lead and finished with 315 yards passing at San Francisco three weeks ago.
"That's just how we play," Goldson said. "It's who we are as football players. It's something we each have in our game, but we feed off each other, too. It's that fire we have on our whole defense, that nobody's waiting around to make plays."
NOTES: The 49ers promoted LB Michael Wilhoite from the practice squad to the active roster. S Eddie Whitley was re-signed to take Wilhoite's place on the practice squad. ... K David Akers (pelvis injury) was limited in practice Friday for the third consecutive day, but coach Jim Harbaugh said he expects Akers to play against the Rams. The 49ers brought in veteran kickers Billy Cundiff and Nate Kaeding for tryouts earlier this week. ... Former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo and former San Francisco players Charles Haley, Roger Craig, Kevin Greene and Larry Allen are among the 27 modern-era semifinalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2013. DeBartolo, Haley and Greene were all finalists for the Class of 2012.