The takeaway-starved 49ers could finally get satiated this weekend in Tampa Bay.
San Francisco’s defense enters Sunday’s game against the Buccaneers having forced a league-low five turnovers, including just two interceptions. But Tampa’s quarterbacks have given the ball away at a historic rate, which could factor into the outcome if the 49ers escape Sunday with their first road victory of the season.
“The defense has got to get more picks to get more wins,” coach Kyle Shanahan said Wednesday.
The Buccaneers will be starting quarterback Jameis Winston, who was benched earlier in the year for his propensity to give the ball away. The No. 1 overall draft choice in 2015 has thrown 11 picks in five games while throwing interceptions on 6.7 percent of his attempts.
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That figure is far and away the worst in the league. Second-worst is Ryan Fitzpatrick (4.9 percent), whom Winston replaced during the Buccaneers’ loss to the Giants last week. Tampa is averaging 3.2 turnovers per game, putting them on pace for 51 this season, which would be the most since the New Orleans Saints had 55 in 1997.
“That’s the thing that’s led to the majority of our turnovers as a team, is just inconsistent decision making at quarterback,” Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter said in a conference call with Bay Area reporters this week.
Koetter has switched quarterbacks four times this season while the Bucs enter Sunday at 3-7 after beginning the 2-0 with surprising victories over the New Orleans Saints and defending champion Philadelphia Eagles. Those victories came with Fitzpatrick under center while Winston began the year suspended for three games for allegedly groping an Uber driver.
Tampa Bay has since fallen on hard times and ranks dead last in turnover differential (minus-23) while San Francisco is second worst (minus-15). The two teams share the unfortunate trait of being prone to give the ball away while struggling to force turnovers, which is the biggest reason for their combined 5-15 record.
“You look, they’ve struggled on defense definitely,” Shanahan said. “Yards and points, and then when you don’t get turnovers, it’s hard to capitalize on how good their offense has done.”
And that’s the paradox facing Koetter as hopes to retain his job as his fourth season at the helm winds down. No offense in the NFL has generated more yardage than his Buccaneers, yet they remain in the cellar of the NFC South because they struggle to hold on the ball.
“We’ve been having 500 yards of offense and turning it over multiple times,” Koetter said. “I’ve never had a season where those two things went hand in hand like this.”
Said Shanahan: “There’s a lot of good offenses in the league this year and they’re moving the ball better than anyone. But, they also don’t have many wins because of it because they’re turning it over and not getting them back.”
The 49ers’ defense could be as healthy as it has been in weeks. Linebacker Reuben Foster (hamstring) and safety Jaquiski Tartt (shoulder) returned to practice this week after both missing the past two games.
Tartt intercepted Cardinals quarterback Josh Rosen Oct. 28 before leaving the game with his injury. Tartt’s backup, Antone Exum Jr., is the only other 49er with an interception this season.
“I wish there was a magic button you could press. Everybody in the league would push it and turnovers would happen,” defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said.
“We’ve had multiple dropped interceptions and eventually the tide has got to change and the ball has got to start bouncing our way. So, we’ve just got to keep plugging, keep being mindful of the ball and the message that Kyle preaches every day that the ball is everything. Eventually it will flip, hopefully soon.”