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Matthew Barrows: 49ers' turnover differential down, but they're still winning

Published: Monday, Nov. 5, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Monday, Nov. 5, 2012 - 8:26 am

SANTA CLARA – The 2011 49ers were powered by their turnover differential, a gaudy plus-28 that led the NFL and was the league's second-best since 1970.

Tipped passes and footballs ripped away by a hawkish defense gave a careful offense excellent field position. And that translated into points, even if those points mostly came three at a time.

The question entering 2012 was, what would happen if the flood of turnovers – so critical to San Francisco's winning formula but also fluky and hard to predict – dried up?

The answer through eight games? Not much.

At this stage a year ago, the 49ers had a 7-1 record and were plus-12 in turnovers. Now, they're 6-2 with a mere plus-three in turnover margin, putting them in the middle of the pack in that category.

Everything that flowed from that turnover margin last season is down, too.

Kicker David Akers, for example, set an NFL record in 2011 with 44 field goals. This season, Akers has missed five attempts and is five field goals off last year's pace.

Average starting field position isn't as good, either. In 2011, the 49ers' average drive began at the 33 1/2-yard line, the best in the NFL. This year, it's the 28 1/2-yard line.

And, of course, there have been fewer interceptions and fumble recoveries – 19 at this time a year ago and 12 now.

Cornerback Carlos Rogers said opponents are more conscious that the 49ers are going after the football and are making sure they keep it secured.

"I was asking the question the other night, 'What's better, to have a lot of turnovers or to get off the field on third downs?' " Rogers said. "I think in this league, it's hard to consistently get a lot of turnovers. But if you can consistently get off the field on third downs, I think that's better than anything. That kind of takes the heart out of a team."

Indeed, the 49ers' third-down percentage has improved, and they are giving up fewer big plays. Their defense ranks first overall (271.4 yards per game) and first in points allowed (12.9 per game).

The defense may not be as flashy as last year's. But as Rogers noted, it's more responsible and cohesive, and it hasn't allowed a touchdown in half of its games.

The same can be said of the offense. There have been no last-minute touchdowns or come-from-behind wins, as there were early in 2011. But the offense has better balance and is more solid.

The team's depth and durability are so impressive that one of its free-agent pickups, future Hall of Famer Randy Moss, has had only a part-time role, while another, running back Brandon Jacobs, hasn't played.

The 49ers brought in Jacobs because Frank Gore, beat up at the midpoint last season, wasn't the same when the playoffs arrived.

Through eight games, Gore has 46 fewer carries than last season – the equivalent of two games – but is just 116 yards behind his pace, and the 49ers have the top-ranked running attack in the league (168.6 yards per game).

Backup Kendall Hunter is taking up some of the slack. But more of it is handled by a passing attack that, while still wobbly at times, is decidedly stronger and more dangerous than it was last season.

Alex Smith's interceptions are up from last season – five through eight games vs. five through 18 games in 2011 – with four coming in losses to the Vikings and Giants. But his touchdowns (12 vs. 10) and yards per attempt (7.94 vs. 7.12) also are up compared to last year, and his completion percentage (69.4) leads the league.

The 49ers had real magic – and perhaps a little luck – last season, whether it was Justin Smith forcing a fumble late in Philadelphia or Delanie Walker just crossing the goal line before his knee skimmed the turf in Detroit.

There have been no similarly iconic moments, no last-second thrills this season.

The 49ers may be one victory poorer than their 2011 selves, but they are deeper, more experienced and more consistent. The measure of a good team is that it can keep winning even when the magic wears off.

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