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Chip Kelly and the trouble with turnovers

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There was one big flaw with the Niners first team offense Sunday. And Chip isn’t happy about it.

The San Francisco 49ers first team offense had two key turnovers Sunday, leading to the Texans only first half points. They included a touchdown return on a Carlos Hyde fumble, and DuJuan Harris losing the ball at Houston’s two yard line.

Chip Kelly is not happy about this. After the game he said, describing his offense:

“I think once they settled down and got in a rhythm I thought they did a really nice job of executing. But, I think that really the concern for us, and in this league you just can’t turn the ball over. We turned the ball over twice in the first half, once was returned for a touchdown and the other time we turned it over on our 2-yard line going into score, so that’s a 14-point swing that we need to win those if we’re going to win games this season. So, that was our biggest concern.”

As a coach, Chip is heavily focused on special teams and on turnovers, because they both have disproportionate impact on the outcome of games. His practices in Philadelphia spent a lot of time trying to generate fumbles on defense — ripping out balls on runs, aiming for the QB’s throwing arm before sacks — and batting or tipping passes.

On the other side of the ball, he had running backs run a gantlet of defenders trying to slap the ball out, and practiced with a football attached to a bungie cord, which a teammate yanked on trying to pull it out.

The results were mixed at best, though. The 2013 Eagles was superb on turnovers with a +12 ratio, boosted by slot cornerback Brandon Boykin’s six interceptions (second only to Richard Sherman) and Nick Foles’ remarkable TD/INT ration of 27-2. The team had just five rushing fumbles and only lost two of them.

2014 was much worse, however. The Eagles had the most total turnovers, interceptions, and fumbles in the NFL. The overall turnover ratio was -8, a full 20 turnover swing. A lot of that was poor quarterback play, from Foles (10 INTs and three fumbles in the first eight games) and Sanchez (11 INTs, three fumbles in 8.25 games.) The team lost six of ten rushing fumbles. Still, Philadelphia was tied for 6th best in NFL takeaways, and led the league in fumbles recovered with 16.

In 2015, the Eagles were T-9th in takeaways, but tied for second worst both in fumbles and interceptions. Their overall turnover ratio was slightly better at minus 5, but the team was criticized for failing to tackle because players were too focused on stripping the ball out. Sam Bradford started the year horribly and had 10 INTs by the end of October. He only had four more the rest of the way though. The team was unlucky, too, losing 8 of their 10 rushing fumbles on the year.

What conclusions can we draw from all of this?

  1. Obviously quarterback performance is a key. Even in the best year of 2013, the other two quarterbacks were much worse than Foles. Mike Vick was mediocre (three INTs and three fumbles in four full and three partial games) and Matt Barkley was horrible. On his first 5 drives, he threw three interceptions and and fumbled three times.
  2. 2013 may have been a bit of a fluke. Foles was never as good at minimizing interceptions before or after his miracle year, and Boykin has only two interceptions in 48 games combined during the rest of his career. On the other hand, 2015 was hurt by Sam Bradford’s unusual rustiness in the first part of the year.
  3. The Eagles had bad cornerbacks, who managed just three, five and five interceptions during Chip’s time there, respectively. Hopefully the Niners can improve on that.
  4. There are no guarantees. Even though Chip does everything possible to maximize forced fumbles and protect the ball on offense, there will always be a big random factor. Luck will always remain a major factor.

Still, as the quarterback and running back competitions proceed, you can be confident that the players who do not turn the ball over will have a major advantage.

What about the two fumbles on Sunday? Carlos Hyde only had one fumble in each of his two NFL seasons, and he’s hardly at risk of losing his position as the team’s top running back. But he’d still be wise to focus on better protecting the ball.

Chip broke down exactly what happened on that play at his press conference Monday. The short story is, an offensive line breakdown.

On the fumble by RB Carlos Hyde, I’ve watched the play a few times, what should be happening there? Is it a missed block by one of those two guys?

“Yeah, we didn’t get off on the snap count on the backside, so there was a little bit of penetration there that got to Carlos. We’ve got to do a better job of getting off the snap count on the back side.”

So the right tackle needs to come off the ball more sharply?

“Yeah, they just all have to come off at the same time. If you slow it down we just weren’t all coming off at the same time. So, we’ve got to get everybody in unison getting off on the snap count.”

Thad Lewis’ fumble came on a failed zone read mesh handoff. That is something that experience should help fix, though the 49ers are not unfamiliar with zone reads. And Lewis is out for the year with an ACL tear in any case.