Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

49ers flip the script on turnovers to help get their swagger back

Nov 21, 2021 at 5:32 PM--

The statistics from the San Francisco 49ers over their past two games are what one might expect given how dominant they've played.

They've outscored their past two opponents—the Los Angeles Rams and Jacksonville Jaguars—by a combined score of 61-20. They ran the ball over 40 times in each game, with a total rushing yardage edge of 327 to 106. They held the ball for 39:03 against the Rams and 38:22 against the Jaguars. But there might be one stat in particular that is most responsible for the turnaround the 49ers are seeing after their 3-5 start.

The stat in question is turnover differential, which is trending in the right direction for the 49ers after being among the worst in the NFL over their first eight games.

The numbers still aren't pretty -- the 49ers are minus-5 for the season, with nine takeaways against 14 giveaways. But they've had two takeaways in each of the past two games with zero giveaways, and it's made a noticeable difference.

After their 30-10 win over the Jaguars on Sunday, multiple 49ers players cited their improvement with turnovers as one of the main reasons behind the team's turnaround after a humiliating 31-17 loss to an injury-plagued Arizona Cardinals team in Week 8, which was their fifth loss in six games and the low point over the first half of the season. Tight end George Kittle said turnovers are the number one reason why the 49ers have been able to reverse their downward slide and are suddenly looking like a team that could make a push for a playoff spot.

"We're not turning the ball over," Kittle said after the win over the Jaguars on Sunday. "We sat here after the Arizona game, bear in the building type of stuff, everyone's trying to solve these problems, and we literally said we've got to stop turning the ball over, we've got to get a couple turnovers on defense or special teams, and that's all we've done the last two weeks. We're not turning the ball over, we're converting third downs, we're putting our best players in positions to make plays, and they're taking advantage of those opportunities and they're making those plays."

The four 49ers' takeaways over the past two games have led to 24 points. It's been a contrast from what happened previously, when the 49ers hurt themselves by being on the opposite end of the spectrum.

"We've definitely had a lot of rough bounces turnover-wise," defensive end Nick Bosa said Sunday. "We've been getting after the ball all year. Things like that, when we get the ball on the ops we create, it kind of flips the momentum of the game. Those big plays that happen throughout the game, sometimes when they don't go your way, it kind of snowballs. You'll have to ask DeMeco [defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans] on the exact reason because I just rush the passer and I don't look too much behind me. But I know when we're getting there it's because they're covering behind us."

The focus on turnovers has only been one aspect of what has helped the 49ers look significantly better than they did for much of their first eight games. They've also avoided giving up big plays and were able to keep themselves together and rally after what they went through against the Cardinals.

"I attribute it to everybody just locking in, coming together, playing for one another," linebacker Fred Warner said Sunday. "The mentality all season has been to get the ball back for the offense, and that's happened obviously these past two weeks. I think that's one of the biggest differences why you see us dominating teams. When we're winning that turnover battle, that's always a plus. I think just playing for one another, just playing hard, and eliminating explosives is what has helped us."

49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan told reporters Sunday that the team staying level-headed after the loss to the Cardinals and keeping their focus on improvement rather than throwing in the towel has helped get things back to where they need to be.

"After that Arizona game, it was pretty low because we were real embarrassed how we looked," Shanahan said. "When we watched the tape, we saw a lot of stuff that we felt we could fix. It wasn't as discouraging as it felt during that game. I was happy with the guys that instead of getting discouraged, they kept it real and just watched the tape and saw the stuff we could improve on. I feel like credit to the guys and some of the coaches that they didn't get down when it's easy to get down. They just kept focusing on trying to get better and practicing and trying to detail stuff up. I think we've done a better job at that the last two weeks."

Indeed, the 49ers look like a much different team than they did on November 7 when they fell 24 points behind a Cardinals team that was playing without multiple star players, including quarterback Kyler Murray. They now find themselves heading into a pivotal home game against the Minnesota Vikings that has playoff implications, as each team is at 5-5 and is looking to keep pace with the rest of the field in the NFC.

"I think these past 14 days have -- I don't want to say changed our team, but we're moving in the right direction now, I'll say," quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said. "So we've just got to keep going. There's a lot of football left to be played. Minnesota's going to be a good challenge for us this week so we've got to get ready for them."

With four road games (Seahawks, Bengals, Titans, Rams) in their final six contests, next Sunday's game against the Vikings looms large for the 49ers. A loss would obviously put them in a particularly difficult spot given what they face the rest of the way. But if they play the way they've played over the past two weeks, the 49ers will continue to be tough to beat -- especially if they continue to win the turnover battle.

"I think you look at the history of the NFL or even this year, when you lose the turnover battle, I think about 90 percent of those games end in losses," left tackle Trent Williams said. "That's the one thing we had to fix. We had two good games with pretty good luck in that margin. That's what we've got to keep going."
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