SANTA CLARA — Instead of writing a column, I thought this time I would simply present recaps of all the 49ers’ interceptions in 2018. Here goes.
On Sept. 30, safety Antone Exum jumped a route by Keenan Allen in Los Angeles, picked off Philip Rivers’ pass on the third snap of the game and ran 32 yards for a touchdown. Exum’s score gave the 49ers a lead over the Chargers that they wouldn’t relinquish until the second half.
On Oct. 28, safety Jaquiski Tartt got Arizona rookie Josh Rosen in a game at Phoenix, anticipating a short route to Charlie Kirk midway through the second quarter. Tartt’s interception set up a go-ahead field goal.
Oops. Looks like I’ll be writing that column after all. Because that’s all, folks. The 49ers have two interceptions this season. It’s not only the current NFL low. They have a shot at, um, achieving the all-time league record, currently owned by the Houston Oilers, who had three in 1982, which was a strike-shortened, nine-game season. The franchise low is eight, set in 1977.
You would think that the randomness of football — a quarterback throwing into coverage as he gets hit by a blitzing linebacker, or a tipped pass that wobbles right into somebody’s arms — would generate more than two picks in 12 games. It hasn’t.
And it isn’t just interceptions. San Francisco has three recoveries of opponents’ fumbles, tied (with the Raiders, among other teams) for second worst in the NFL. Tally up the takeaways — it doesn’t take long — and the 49ers’ five are easily the fewest in the league; Philadelphia and Baltimore have nine each. The all-time 49ers “record” is 12, established by Jim Tomsula’s 2015 team. The 2018 Niners would have to go on a spree of thievery just to match it. This honorable refusal to take another team’s football partly explains why the Niners currently have an NFL-worst turnover differential of minus-20.
In some ways, the SF defense hasn’t been terrible this year. These guys are tied for 11th in average yards per carry, at 4.2. They’re tied for fourth in opposing completion percentage, at 62.0. They’re slightly better than average in total yardage allowed, at 348.8 per game.
But any good work is undone when you can’t generate turnovers. It keeps the defense on the field too long, prevents the offense from working on a short field and eliminates the sort of big play that can decide a game.
“It does put a lot of pressure on the defense to execute at a high level, but it’s also putting pressure on the offense,” rookie linebacker Fred Warner said. “There’s zero room for error. Zero room for error. Because a lot of the games are won over that turnover battle.”
Everyone here in Santa Clara knows this to be the case. The 49ers’ lack of takeaways is a source of constant discussion, and frustration.
“It’s baffling to me that we haven’t been able to get as many as we had and how many missed (opportunities) we’ve had,” defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. “I’m not even talking about miraculous plays. I’m just talking about plays that I feel like are gimmes. We should be well in double digits in terms of takeaways.”
But what can the 49ers do to rectify the situation? How can they force more turnovers? As you might guess, it isn’t simply a matter of Saleh huddling his players before each opposing possession and saying, “Guys, force a fumble and then jump on the ball. Also, intercept a pass.”