Asked this week what’s lacking on the 49ers’ defense, ranked last in the NFL, safety Eric Reid didn’t hesitate.
“If there’s one stat that tells the story of a football game, it’s the turnover battle,” he said. “And we haven’t been winning that battle very often. I think we were at minus-4 this week, and we lost by 20 points. We need to get some turnovers on defense to help our offense out.”
The 49ers – who hoped their defense would be aggressive, take risks and produce turnovers – actually rank fairly well in takeaways. They have 11 , tied for 11th in the league.
But eight takeaways came in the first three weeks, and the 49ers have struggled to generate them in the last five games. Why?
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One culprit is the run defense, which ranks last in the league and is on pace to allow more yards than any team since 1978. That means opposing runners are getting into the secondary and are not being gang-tackled, which could cause fumbles.
“If we’re running behind the ball all game, it’s tough,” linebacker Michael Wilhoite said.
It also means offenses don’t have to throw as much and risk interceptions. This season, 49ers opponents have attempted 263 passes, second fewest in the league. Conversely, offenses have run 294 times against the 49ers. That’s the most in the league, especially notable considering 10 teams have not yet had their byes and have played one more game than San Francisco.
When offenses do pass, the 49ers are getting decent pressure. According to Pro Football Focus, they have 137 quarterback pressures – sacks, quarterback hits and quarterback hurries – which rank 16th in the league. But they are not actually getting to the quarterback when he still has the ball.
San Francisco has only 14 sacks, tied with the winless Cleveland Browns for 26th, while opposing quarterbacks have a 98.9 passer rating against the 49ers, who rank 27th in that category.
Meanwhile, the 49ers have abandoned defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil’s multiple-look scheme. They’ve made so many critical assignment errors that O’Neil has simplified his strategy, dropping his outside linebackers into coverage less than he did in the season’s first month and using fewer exotic blitzes.
Coach Chip Kelly said that adjustment didn’t mean his team no longer was aggressive on defense. The 49ers still blitz on 38.9 percent of pass plays, per Pro Football Focus, notably higher than the 30.7 percent NFL average.
Of course, defenses that don’t have to manufacture pass-rush pressure with the blitz have more players in coverage and sometimes create more turnovers. That’s what happened in 2011, when the 49ers blitzed infrequently but led the league with 38 takeaways.
“Maybe the most simple defense in the league is Seattle’s, and they do an outstanding job of it,” Kelly said. “They really play (just) one front. They’ve got minimal amount of pressures because they can generate a pass rush with their four down guys. They’ve got outstanding cover guys that can cover not only anybody in the league, but they can cover for a long time.”
Finally, the 49ers simply haven’t had much luck, always a factor when it comes to something as streaky as turnovers.
Reid, for instance, noted that in Sunday’s loss to the New Orleans Saints, the 49ers batted two balls in the air – one on a pass to the end zone – but defenders couldn’t snag them before they hit the grass.
“We had a couple of opportunities,” Reid said. “We’ve just got to grab the ball.”