Even the first 49ers, who got to California before the NFL, never had a rush like the one Fred Dean is now supplying.

In his five weeks as a 49er, San Francisco has gone past Los Angeles and Atlanta the way Dean has gone past offensive tackles. After a 17-14 victory over Atlanta Sunday, the 49ers are 8-2, have won seven in a row, lead the NFC West by three games and are stacking up the sacks along with the believers.

Though the stingy San Diego Chargers might not believe it, Dean, the 6-foot-2, 227-pound defensive end, has been worth his weight in 49er gold.

"Fred Dean is not a rah-rah type," said rookie safety Ronnie Lott, one of the young inhabitants of the 49ers' defense. "He just does the job."

Los Angeles quarterback Pat Haden might concur. For four quarters of fury and defeat against the 49ers, Haden had faded back, then faded from sight. On five different plays, Haden had No. 11 on the front of his jersey and No. 74 on the back.

The Rams lost, 20-17, to the 49ers and Haden, the Rhodes scholar, had made it on the Dean's list.

"Fred Dean was everywhere," said Haden about the 49er defensive end whose sack count included three in the game's last three minutes.

Two weeks earlier, in his first game as a 49er, Dean dropped Dallas' Danny White twice in the 49ers' 45-14 win at Candlestick Park.

And the week before, Dean put Lynn Dickey and the Packers on their back in a 13-3 win at Green Bay. Dean had one sack in that game and, when he was double-teamed, Lawrence Pillers trundled in to get three sacks of his own.

"I feel I can get to the quarterback anytime I really have to," said Dean, 29, whose nine sacks lead the 49ers, a team for whom he has played six weeks. Before he arrived, San Francisco had nine sacks in five (3-2) games. In Dean's five games, the defense has 17 sacks and the team has five victories.

When the Chargers decided not to renegotiate Dean's $75,000-a-year contract at the start of the season, Dean sat out and the 49ers came in with an offer believed to be near $150,000 a year.

"All it took was a phone call," said Bill Walsh. "I took advantage of my position as head coach and general manager and acted quickly. We were very happy to get him."

So, for a third-round pick in 1983 and the option for the Chargers to switch first-round picks with San Francisco that same year, Dean, the 1979 AFC defensive player of the year and a Pro Bowl player the past two years, came to San Francisco.

Now, San Diego -- the team that wouldn't renegotiate John Jefferson's contract, then traded him to Green Bay -- is trying to figure out what's wrong with its defense. The way things are going, it won't do San Diego much good to change the draft order with the 49ers.

"The Chargers are hard negotiators," said David Perrine, Dean's San Diego-based lawyer. "But so am I. Both Fred and I are happy. I think Fred will settle in the Bay area."

Chuck Studley, San Francisco's defensive coordinator, said, "Fred Dean sets a whole new standard of excellence. We've never had anybody that good. And the price we paid for him certainly wasn't exorbitant. But we have to be careful not to overuse him. The temptation is great."

Dean has received 25 game balls in his 6 1/2-year, 99-game career. He is a pass rusher, a hand that reaches into the quarterback's pocket. When the 49er defense expects to see the pass, the opposing quarterback can usually expect to see Dean. Very quickly, too.

Now, people want to know if the 49ers are among the best teams in the league. Walsh, the overuser of understatement, says, "I think we are becoming a factor in this league."

The third-year coach was bold, nearly brazen for him, when he said, under questioning, "We're on the same schedule, I think, that Pittsburgh and Philadelphia were on when they were going so well."

The defense -- or "Dean-fense" as they have been saying here -- has three rookies starting in the secondary: Ronnie Lott, Carlton Williamson and Eric Wright. Those three have eight interceptions, five fumble recoveries and hordes of hard hits among them. But perhaps the best thing about them might be that they don't remember what it was like around here during Walsh's first two years, meager 1979 (2-14) and mediocre 1980 (6-10).

"When we think about last year," said Lott, "I think about USC, Carlton thinks about Pitt and Eric Wright thinks about Missouri."

Joe Montana is the top-rated quarterback in the NFC. He remembers 1980. "Last year, it was difficult when Steve DeBerg (since traded to Denver) and I were both No. 1. I'm trying to take advantage of this chance. You never know how long you'll last in this league."

Keith Fahnhorst, an offensive tackle, remembers 1980, too. He also remembers 1979, 1978 and 1974-1977. He has been with this team for eight years, from Steve Spurrier to Norm Snead to Montana, from decent to destitute to devastating.

"I'm trying to forget those bad years. I used to get a sick feeling going to practice when we went 2-14 those two years in a row (1978-79).

"Ever since we beat Dallas, people have asked me, 'Was that the turning point?' I said, 'Ask me in five or six weeks.' Well, now I think it might have been the turning point.

Lott said, "We don't think we're almighty. We just want respect."

Montana said, "We are not cocky; we are young and happy about what we're doing."

And Fred Dean, whose 6-foot-2, 227-pound physique has him named "Lean Fred Dean," simply said, "I like it here."