In Jim Harbaugh’s first season as head coach in 2011, the 49ers feasted on turnovers.
San Francisco had 38 takeaways from opponents, while giving up the ball just 10 times for a plus-28 turnover mark, one of the best in NFL history.
This season began with a much different theme.
After three games, San Francisco was reeling after two straight losses and was minus-4 in turnover differential, having turned the ball over seven times.
But over the past month, the 49ers have done a complete turnaround. The Niners are on a four-game winning streak as they head to London for a game Sunday against the winless Jacksonville Jaguars, and one of the keys to their regained momentum has been turnovers.
The 49ers are back to forcing them – and taking advantage of them – while holding on tight to the football themselves.
Over that four-game winning streak, the Niners have taken the ball away 12 times and turned each interception and fumble recovery into points, scoring eight touchdowns and kicking four field goals.
For the season, the 49ers now rank tied for seventh in the NFC with a plus-4 takeaway-giveaway margin.
And, in Sunday’s 31-17 victory over the Titans in Tennessee, the 49ers cashed in again, when cornerback Tramaine Brock’s third interception of the season paid off with a touchdown just before halftime and special teams ace Kassim Osgood later scored a touchdown on a fumble recovery.
San Francisco is now collecting turnovers in bunches, just the way Harbaugh said they might three weeks ago after the 49ers scored 24 points off four takeaways in a 34-3 victory over the Houston Texans.
At that time, Harbaugh likened getting turnovers to getting tightly-packed olives out of a jar. When the jar is opened, it’s tough to get them out.
“They’re packed in there so darn tight,” he told reporters. “But if you just get one to come out, just pluck one out of there, and then they want to come out. They’re just flying out of the jar.
“So, hopefully that’s the case for us defensively. You just wonder, are you ever going to get a turnover or interception or fumble, and how can we get one? Then you get one and then you get (another), then they start flying your way. So, hopefully, that’s where we’re at.”
Indeed it is.
It’s helped, too, that the 49ers have never stopped focusing on creating turnovers. The 49ers defense every week holds a “Takeaway Thursday” session in which the coaching staff talks to players about opponents’ tendencies, and how to take advantage of them. Linebacker Patrick Willis said that session prior to the Arizona Cardinals game helped him strip the ball from receiver Larry Fitzgerald. Safety Eric Reid then recovered the ball.
Plus, safeties Donte Whitner and Reid have been a force, with big hits and interceptions. Reid, a rookie, has become a playmaker the past few weeks.
“We’re playing now,” linebacker NaVorro Bowman told the Associated Press. “We’re back to the way we play football. That’s something we add to our game is just turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. It’s starting to pan out for us.”