Barber: How can 49ers generate more turnovers?

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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.”

Contrary to appearances, the 49ers do work at swiping the ball. As veteran defensive tackle Earl Mitchell confirmed, they have turnover periods in practice. That sounds easy to enact when it comes to interceptions. I figured it would be harder to simulate fumbles in a league that no longer condones full-contact practices.

“Honestly, it’s not as hard as you would think,” Warner said. “I mean, we’re not in pads usually, so we’re not usually thudding guys up. So the alternative is guys punching at the ball, ripping at the ball, doing those kinds of things trying to create that habit of attacking the football, so that in a game it’s just second nature.”

The defensive players I spoke to Thursday had some specific ideas of how to get their hands on more footballs.

“Say you’re the second guy in, first guy is holding the guy up — we gotta try and take shots at the ball, rip at the ball as much as we can,” defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said. “And even with our sacks, quarterback can’t see us and we’re coming in clean, we’ve gotta try to rake at that ball as he’s trying to throw it.”

Mitchell called takeaways a mindset, and some of his teammates agreed. Unfortunately, there’s more to the equation. If you look at the teams that force a lot of turnovers, it’s usually about more than defensive backs with good hands and edge rushers who have perfected the strip-sack. It’s about game situations.

Turnovers tend to happen in the natural flow of a game when things are going poorly for the offense. When a team is playing from behind, or when it’s faced with a lot of third-and-long situations, the interceptions follow. So do the fumbles, courtesy of beleaguered quarterbacks on passing downs. Even running backs seem to fumble more frequently when other things are going south for a team.

The 49ers haven’t generated enough of these advantageous situations. They’re usually the team that’s down on the scoreboard. They’re more often the offense facing third-and-13, not the defense licking its chops at that down and distance.

“They’re going to come in bunches,” Saleh said. But that’s hard to imagine over the next four games, against superior teams: Denver, Seattle, Chicago and the Rams. Hard to imagine the 49ers getting the upper hand on those opponents. Hard to imagine badgering them into unforced errors.

The 49ers aren’t there yet. They’re rarely the better squad.

“Certain teams are really good; they’re just being mindful and protecting the ball,” Mitchell said. “But we gotta be, for lack of a better term, like (bleeps) about it.”

Mitchell wasn’t angry, but he said a very bad word. The 49ers’ lack of takeaways is becoming profane.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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