While the offense has been lackluster of late, the San Francisco 49ers have been the best team in the NFL in one category: scoring off turnovers.
The 49ers lead the NFL in takeway points, scoring 105 (12 touchdowns and 7 field goals) off 19 turnovers. Only twice have they failed to score off a turnover through 10 games this season. It hasn't happened since they punted after Eric Reid's interception in the first quarter of Week 2's loss in Seattle.
And while the offense struggled mightily in the 23-20 loss in New Orleans last week, 17 of its 20 points came off turnovers. The other three came on Phil Dawson's 29-yard field goal that followed the Saints' turnover over on downs in the third quarter. For whatever reason the offense becomes more potent when it gets the ball following a turnover. Credit the momentum shifts.
"I think it starts with field position," offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. "I also think, innately, when the defense turns the ball over, man everybody is ultra-hungry to reward them for that. I don't know if you can quantify that or if it's tangible.
"That's just a feel thing. But our guys have been outstanding at doing that this year. It's great team football."
The tangibility of momentum is often debated. At times there can be disconnects in sequences involving different sides of the ball. Sometimes teams' defenses suffer when their offense scores too quickly. Or a great kick return might not lead to points if the offense can't take advantage.
But for the 49ers, this uninspiring offense has been able to feed off the defenses' game-changing plays.
"You see your boys make a play, it's like "OK, let's go match them. They just gave us the ball here, so let's go put it in there,'" running back Frank Gore said.
Since Jim Harbaugh took over in 2011, San Francisco has been especially good at getting takeaways. Vic Fangio's defense notched a league-high 38 that year. Last season, the team was in the middle of the pack with 25, indicating the fluky and unsustainable nature of the statistic.
This year the 49ers are back to ball hawking and it's been a major asset to the league's 29th ranked offense. Of the team's 43 scoring plays (29 touchdowns, 14 field goals), 19 have come off turnovers. That means roughly 44 percent of their scoring output has been a product of turnovers - a huge number.
That stat says two very contrasting things about this team. First, the fact that San Francisco is the league's No. 12 scoring team (24.7 points per game) appears to be a big misnomer. Second, the defense is playing very high-caliber football.
But as poor as the offense has performed, it's avoided putting the defense in too many sticky situations. Colin Kaepernick and Co. have turned it over 15 times, ranking 13th in the league. It's lead to the 49ers being the league's top team in terms of net turnover points with +68. Teams have scored just 37 points off San Francisco's giveaways.
Turnovers are an important bullet point as the team takes on the Redskins Monday, who turned the ball over just 14 times last season, the best mark in football. This year, Washington has 18 through 10 games, including 10 interceptions thrown by Robert Griffin III. Last year, Griffin threw just five in 15 starts en route to winning Offensive Rookie of the Year. Griffin should give the 49ers plenty of opportunities to make plays that impact the field-position battle.
Each week, the 49ers have emphasized getting turnovers. But there's more to it than just telling players to remain opportunistic.
"You just have to be very persistent at it," Fangio said. "If you get 30 or 35 takeaways in a season, you're going to play over 1,000 plays in a season. That doesn't sound like a whole lot. But it does emphasize how you have to be persistent because those opportunities aren't always there."
For Reid, the talented rookie starting in his first season as a pro, he's able to pick up tendencies through scouting his opponents. Reid leads the 49ers with five takeaways.
"We notice when we're watching film. If there's a play with a returner, special teams or a running back or quarterback, we notice how they hold the ball. So if they're moving it around, we know there's an opportunity to strip it. So we're always looking for turnovers," Reid said.
Inversely, defending a team following a turnover can be a difficult task. Instead of knowing when it's going to go back on the field following a punt or kickoff, a defense might face an element of shell shock following a turnover.
"There's some psychological tool when you're feeling down as a team and they're feeling up because of what just happened. But you have to go out there and put out the fire," Fangio said.
Offenses are often more aggressive following a turnover, but it's something Fangio has his unit prepared for.
"We have no control of how we get on the field. The only thing we control is how we get off the field. Whether they have driven the ball from their own 20 to our 20, or whether they've gotten a takeaway and started the drive on the 20, really shouldn't make much difference to us. We have to go out there and play," he said.
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