SANTA CLARA — The 49ers are back to their old ball-hawking ways.
Among the biggest reasons Jim Harbaugh's Niners (4-2) are on a nice roll again and riding a three-game winning streak into Sunday's game at Tennessee is because a once-dominant defense challenged itself to return to top form after several sub-par weeks. And that means forcing turnovers all over the field.
It's happening, all right. As in 10 takeaways in the past three games that turned into 54 points, including four in each of the past two games. That's after San Francisco forced only one turnover total in its two losses, at Seattle in Week 2 and home the following Sunday against the Colts.
Safety Donte Whitner expects San Francisco to build off the turnovers each week, and that's certainly how it has gone of late.
"They come in bunches, that's our game," Whitner said. "We want to get turnovers, they don't want to turn it over."
On the other side, quarterback Colin Kaepernick and company realize how important it is to take care of the ball because the Titans' defense is doing many of the same things. Tennessee's plus-8 turnover differential is good for second in the NFL, to San Francisco's plus-2 that's tied for 12th.
"Very stout defensively," Harbaugh said Wednesday. "Probably the best team we've seen at stripping, clubbing, punching the ball out, creating turnovers, very physical."
Even veteran running back Frank Gore has to keep a tight grip on the ball. He rushed for 13 yards before fumbling on the second play of the third quarter in a win at St. Louis on Sept. 26. Not that Harbaugh's too worried.
"Don't see anybody doing it better than Frank Gore," Harbaugh said. "When that happens to Frank, you're not going to sneak up on Frank again and hit him over the head with a bag of dung a second time."
On Sunday, it very well could come down to who best takes care of the ball.
Titans tight end Delanie Walker, who spent the previous seven seasons with San Francisco after the 49ers made him a sixth-round draft pick in 2006 out of Central Missouri, expects constant pressure. He's not surprised with the recent run of takeaways.
"That's how they always are, they play fast, they're explosive, they like to hit," Walker said Wednesday. "I've been watching film on them and it looks like the same fast defense that they always were, coming up, hitting, making plays. I wouldn't expect nothing less."
Rookie Eric Reid has a team-leading three interceptions, and Tramaine Brock made both of his picks against Matt Schaub in a 34-3 rout of the Houston Texans two weeks ago.
The 49ers' defense still holds a "Takeaway Thursday" session in which secondary coach Ed Donatell goes over each player on the opposing offense and his tendencies. Linebacker Patrick Willis said that preparation helped him force a costly fumble by Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald that stopped a Cardinals drive deep in 49ers territory in the third quarter Sunday. Reid recovered, adding that play to his impressive day that included an interception.
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