Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Inside the locker room: The secret behind the success of the 49ers’ No.1 defense

Rohan Chakravarthi
Jan 9, 2023 at 6:00 PM--

The San Francisco 49ers have compiled one of the best defenses in 2022, ranking amongst the league's best in nearly every statistic, despite facing injuries at key positions throughout the year.

Over the past four seasons, the 49ers have made the playoffs three times, with the defense being a primary reason for their success every time.

However, the 2022 defense has arguably been the best unit of the Kyle Shanahan era, and there's a secret behind the newfound success: turnovers.

2021 defense

The San Francisco 49ers were one of the best defenses in 2021, ranking third in yards allowed per game(310.0), sixth in passing yards allowed per game(206.5), and ninth in scoring(21.5 points per game allowed).

However, there was one crucial part lacking from their defense: turnovers.

The 49ers ranked 19th in 2021 in creating turnovers, generating just 1.2 per game. Still, that doesn't tell the full story, as San Francisco especially struggled to generate interceptions, ranking 26th in the NFL.

As a result, the 49ers were just 22nd in the NFL in turnover margin with a -0.2 per game. Furthermore, when the 49ers lost the turnover margin in 2021, they went just 1-5, while winning all five of their games that they had a positive turnover differential.

The transition in 2022

In the offseason, it was a clear focus for the 49ers to improve this ranking, which safety Talanoa Hufanga acknowledged following San Francisco's win over the Arizona Cardinals this weekend.

"Well, definitely last year, I don't know what our production [of creating turnovers] was exactly," Hufanga said. "Our coaches really made an emphasis that we weren't even up there in terms of how many interceptions our guys had in our room."

Clearly, the emphasis towards turnovers has worked in 2022, as the 49ers ended the season as the No. 1 team in terms of turnover differential at 0.8, while ranking first in intercepetions per game at 1.2 and second in takeaways per game at 1.8.

Prior to the 2022 season, the 49ers had never ranked in the top 10 for turnover differential in the Kyle Shanahan era, making their feat of earning the top rank this season even more impressive.

The 49ers had ten games with a positive turnover differential, as opposed to their five in 2021, winning each of those matchups, while losing each game in which they faced a negative turnover difference.

After Sunday's game, Hufanga praised the defense, pointing to how three players secured three or more interceptions this season, which only six other NFL teams accomplished this season: the Cowboys, Packers, Jaguars, Patriots, Eagles, and Steelers.

"To take [the turnover differential] to the next level this year, and guys that have three plus picks this year is just awesome. So, continue just to put our foot forward, and keep going. Very proud of them, for sure."

Speaking to reporters following the game, fullback Kyle Juszczyk acknowledged how important the No. 1 ranking in turnover differential would be to head coach Kyle Shanahan, alluding to San Francisco's weekly meetings dedicated to turnovers as a measure for improvement this season.

"[The turnover differential ranking] is going to be a huge deal [to Kyle Shanahan]. We literally have a meeting every week dedicated to turnovers," said Juszczyk. "Now that puts us at 10-0, when we were plus in turnovers this year, and I think we were 3-0, when it was even. So I mean, we're really consistent. When we win the turnover battle, we're going to win the game."

Winning the turnover battle has been the M.O for the 49ers during their ten-game winning streak, as each of their last eight games have involved a positive takeaway differential for the team.

Star edge rusher Nick Bosa agreed with the sentiment of his teammates, adding that it was a big deal for the team to lead the league in turnover differential for the first time.

"[Leading the turnover differential] is one of the number one things, for sure. We have the ball meeting every Thursday. [San Francisco 49ers Defensive Assistant] Nick Sorenson is our guy this year. He does the ball. And yeah, turnover margin, we looked at the stats in the meeting this week and every team that was in the plus, or like the top 10 takeaway margin teams are all playoff teams, so that's a clear stat that you want to be good in. I'm happy for Gip [San Francisco 49ers S Tashaun Gipson Sr.]. He got a couple [against the Cardinals]."

Heading into the playoffs, the 49ers are the hottest team in football, but are encountering a different atmosphere with a first-time playoff quarterback. In order to continue their success, they'll need to sustain their advantage with the turnover differential as they've done all season.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.

1 Comment

  • mike
    I really don't follow metrics. but totally concur that whichever team wins the turnover battle, usually wins the game.
    Jan 9, 2023 at 11:59 PM

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