San Francisco

Niners Are Winning Battles for Turnovers and Field Position

Offensive and defensive standouts are earning attention in 3-0 start, but the 49ers also have improved by taking away the ball and doing what they need on special teams to aid their cause

Jimmy Garoppolo is back at quarterback, the offense is clicking and the defense looks much improved — with additions such as Nick Bosa and Dee Ford — carrying the 49ers to a 3-0 start.

It’s the first time San Francisco has won its first three games since 1998, and it’s a huge change from a 4-12 record in 2018.

But other things — perhaps that aren’t making headlines — are contributing to success, too.

Take turnovers and field position.

As Kyle Posey of SB Nation pointed out this week, the 49ers have improved dramatically in both categories.

In 2018, the 49ers were the worst team in the NFL in turnover margin at minus-25. This season, the 49ers are at minus-1, but already have eight takeways on defense, one more than they had in 16 games a year ago.

Also, San Francisco consistently had terrible field position in 2018, because of too many turnovers and special teams problems. Its average starting field position was at its own 25-yard line. This year, the Niners are among the top five, with an average start at the 31.

As Posey points out, punter Richie James is one reason. He ranks eighth in the NFL in punt return yards (57) and has just three fair catches among the 10 punts he’s fielded.

Writes Posey: "It sounds simple, but every Sunday you see punt returners let the ball bounce, or go over their head, and it costs the offense 10 or more yards of field position. James’ average of 8.1 yards per punt return may not seem like much, but it is."

Also, rookie punter Mitch Wishnowsky has been solid, averaging 45.1 yards on seven tries, with just one touchback and three inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. Plus, his hang time has been terrific. Last year, Bradley Pinion averaged 43.7 yards.

As Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group noted after the 49ers’ win over the Bengals in Week 2, Wishnowsky – who had a punt downed at the Cincinnati 1-yard line -- has been fabulous. Against the Steelers this past Sunday, he had a 52-yarder that resulted in a fair catch and averaged 50 yards on three punts.

Turnovers, field position, punt returns and big punts. It’s been part of San Francisco’s recipe for success so far.

The 49ers have a bye this Sunday and resume play on Monday night, Oct. 7, vs. the Cleveland Browns.

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