SF 49ers: Eliminating turnovers will be key over final 6 games

Kendrick Bourne #84 of the San Francisco 49ers recovers a fumble by teammate Jeff Wilson #41 (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
Kendrick Bourne #84 of the San Francisco 49ers recovers a fumble by teammate Jeff Wilson #41 (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images) /

To stay in the playoff hunt, the SF 49ers have to do a better job protecting the ball and guarding against unnecessary turnovers.

The turnover margin hasn’t been friendly to the SF 49ers this season.

There are a lot of items the 4-6 Niners will want to improve upon over their final six games of the regular season. But if the playoffs are truly going to be within reach, head coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense needs to do a much better job protecting the ball.

Entering their Week 11 bye, San Francisco boasted 17 total turnovers, which was tied for third most in the league with the Philadelphia Eagles and just behind the Dallas Cowboys (20) and the Denver Broncos (21). The SF 49ers played one more game than each of those three teams entering Week 11, of course, making the total slightly less bearable.

But when one admits the Niners’ four-turnover loss to the New Orleans Saints in Week 10, a key reason why the 27-13 defeat happened, it doesn’t feel that much better.

Ironically enough, the high number of turnovers hasn’t totally hindered the offense. According to TeamRankings.com, San Francisco is eighth overall in average time of possession per game (31:35). Yet with a shorthanded offense missing key playmakers like wide receiver Deebo Samuel, running back Raheem Mostert, tight end George Kittle and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, time of possession only matters if points are being generated on the scoreboard.

To date, the SF 49ers are averaging only 23.8 points per game, which ranked 20th in the league entering Week 11. Turnovers haven’t helped.

SF 49ers quarterbacks must protect the ball better

Fumbles and muffed punts are problematic, yes. But out of the Niners’ 17 turnovers lost, 11 of them have come by the way of interceptions.

Garoppolo, whose interception tendencies were easily the biggest concern from his otherwise solid 2019 campaign, has seen his 2.7 interception percentage from last year jump nearly a full point to 3.6 this season. And he was on pace to eclipse the 13 picks thrown a year ago before suffering a high-ankle sprain that could easily prevent him from returning to the field this season.

His replacement, backup quarterback Nick Mullens, hasn’t fared much better in protecting the ball either.

Mullens’ interception percentage this season is nearly identical to that of Garoppolo: 3.5 percent. And when ranking both quarterbacks in comparison to the rest of the NFL ahead of Week 11, Garoppolo and Mullens rank fourth and fifth worst, respectively.

To date, Mullens already has six interceptions thrown against six touchdowns. That number, combined with the Niners defense struggling to generate takeaways, has led to a less-than-desirable minus-0.5 turnover differential over 10 weeks, which ranked fifth worst.

Based on that stat alone, it’s almost something of a wonder how San Francisco managed to engineer a 4-6 record entering its bye week.

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But if the SF 49ers want to climb in the standings, cutting down on those giveaways has to be a top priority.