SANTA CLARA, Calif. — There was a little less than five minutes to go in the first half of the San Francisco 49ers‘ Week 5 victory against Cleveland and the Browns were marching.
The Niners had a 14-3 lead, but the Browns appeared poised to make a game of it. On third-and-goal from the 49ers’ 6, Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield dropped back and fired a quick pass to receiver Antonio Callaway, who had come free over the middle.
Just as Callaway appeared to squeeze the pass for an easy touchdown, it slipped through his grasp and bounced in the air. In recent Niners seasons, a bouncing ball would have ended up back in Callaway’s grasp or maybe ricocheted off a helmet and into the hands of another Browns receiver. The worst result possible was the expectation, especially in 2018.
Should you need further evidence beyond their 5-0 record that these Niners aren’t those Niners, look no further than what happened next: the ball caromed into the air and fell into the arms of 49ers cornerback K’Waun Williams. Williams secured it and raced 49 yards to Cleveland’s 49. Six plays later, the Niners scored a touchdown to take a 21-3 lead.
Good night, Browns. Hello, some much-needed luck.
“It could have easily been a touchdown and all of a sudden it bounces up and it’s a turnover,” cornerback Richard Sherman said. “Last year, that would have been just an easy touchdown and nobody would have said anything.”
So far, this season couldn’t be more different than 2018 and the defense’s takeaway production speaks loudly to why the 49ers have rattled off five consecutive wins to open this season.
Of the many disappointing talking points that hounded the Niners last year, none had to frustrate more than their inability to come up with turnovers. They finished the season with just seven turnovers created, only two of which came via interceptions. Both set NFL records for futility.
Five games into this season, those “milestones” feel like a distant memory. Buoyed by one of the league’s fiercest pass rushes, improved health and a more dynamic and experienced back seven, the Niners have 12 takeaways and seven interceptions, easily eclipsing last season’s marks.
What was an offseason point of emphasis is now a team strength, as the dozen takeaways are tied for fourth most in the NFL.
“That’s what we’re always striving for is creating turnovers on defense,” defensive lineman Arik Armstead said. “You know, we figured if we keep fighting, keep fighting, it’s going to happen.”
To win that turnover battle, the Niners first had to overcome themselves. Instead of shying away from last season’s depressing reality, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh ramped up the emphasis, pushing his defense to focus on finishing every play through the whistle.
Among the teaching points was getting as many defenders to the ball as possible, with additional tacklers attempting to rip the ball away from the ball carrier. It annoyed their offensive counterparts in training camp and led to a few shoving matches, but it was a necessity after last year’s struggles.
More important, though, has been a revamped pass rush that added dynamic edge rushers Nick Bosa and Dee Ford. The thought was that a relentless pass rush would force quarterbacks to throw the ball earlier than they’d like, thus creating more interception opportunities.
In that Cleveland game, Mayfield threw another interception to Sherman after Bosa quickly got in his face, forcing him to throw it earlier than he wanted. Sherman ran Callaway’s route for him, cut it short and made it look easy.
Of the Niners’ seven interceptions this season, four have come with the quarterback under duress, which ranks second in the NFL.
“Quarterbacks have to get rid of the football,” Saleh said. “They have to make the decision quicker and either that or they are taking sacks or fumbling. It’s all rush and coverage tying together and when you’re confident in your rush you can start playing smarter on the back end level and you can start getting tighter.”
Beyond the pass-rush upgrades, Niners coach Kyle Shanahan points to a defense that has mostly stayed healthy so far and the experience their young defenders have gained. Saleh also gets credit for staying the course and preaching fundamentals, making sure his players know if they stick to them, the turnovers would come eventually.
And while turnover margin is one of the best indicators of wins and losses, an important spin off comes from points off turnovers. That’s something the 49ers have done better than anyone so far, averaging 9.8 points off turnovers per game, second best in the NFL.
That doesn’t even factor in the instant energy boost a sudden change can create.
“Those are the momentum swings, when you can make the big jumps in the game, get ahead of people and kind of put the stress on them more,” quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said. “When the defense is playing how they’re playing, it’s our job to go finish it.”
The 2018 49ers wandered through the desert thirsting for turnovers. This year’s group has already found its oasis and is drinking from it consistently. But now that they have a taste, they’re thirsty for more.
“I think we’re barely scratching the surface,” Armstead said.