There’s a weird kind of showdown set for Sunday’s 10am (PST) game: the NFL team with the most giveaways (Tampa Bay Buccaneers), against the team with the fewest takeaways (San Francisco 49ers).
It’s like an old Chinese legend from the 3rd century BC book Han Feizi. A weapons dealer was selling a spear that (he said) could pierce any shield; but he also sold a shield “that could block any spear.” A potential customer asked, what happens if you throw your spear at your shield? He had no answer.
Sunday’s game will be the opposite. What if you throw a spear that can’t pierce any shield — basically a wet, crumbly dirt clod — against a shield made of tissue paper? We’ll find out soon.
It’s easy to get discouraged about the turnover situation with this Niners team, and there’s no reason not to. They’re terrible. This squad has only two interceptions and three fumble recoveries all year, a total of just five total takeaways in ten games. Meanwhile, they’ve given up 12 interceptions and eight fumbles, for a turnover differential of -15.
The odd thing is that Tampa Bay is a lot worse: only one INT and five FR, but they’ve given up 23 interceptions and six fumbles, for a stunning differential of -23 (50% worse than SF).
Both teams are on pace to set all time NFL records, as Chronicle columnist Eric Branch pointed out. (If it really is him; Twitter refuses to verify his identity. Maybe “Eric Branch” is just a sock puppet for Jim Tomsula! Can you prove he isn’t? I didn’t think so. )
My point is, the Niners are projected to grab just eight combined takeaways in this entire season, well below the current low water mark of eleven. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers are on target to crush the record for bad turnover differential with -37, far worse than the mark set by the 1965 Pittsburgh Steelers, at -30.
What will happen head to head? Will the Bucs just drop the ball on the turf, where it will sit, neglected and lonely as the clock runs out?
There are reasons to be optimistic about this battle of the basement, and reasons to be glum.
On the plus side:
1) Nick Mullens is a big improvement
It’s true that he threw two interceptions against the Giants, both deflections, but his INT rate (3.3%) is still much lower than Beathard’s (4.1%), and even slightly below Jimmy G’s (3.4%).
Perhaps more importantly, Mullens has zero sacks in two games, which does wonders to reduce the rate of strip sacks. The Niners have only one fumble in those two games, a flubbed handoff by Mullens to Breida which the RB recovered anyway. Compare that to eight fumbles lost in the previous eight games.
2) The way the ball bounces
Fumble recoveries (as a percentage of balls on the ground) vary wildly from year to year, which makes sense given the odd shape of the ball and resulting randomness of its bounces. So far this year, the 49ers luck has been bad; they’ve recovered just 3 of their 8 forced fumbles, while their opponents have forced 14 fumbles and recovered 8 of them. That ratio will almost certainly revert to the mean.
If you want to be pessimistic, though, there’s also lots of evidence for your side of this debate. The Bucs have been tearing up the league with a powerful passing game — marred by tons of interceptions. The Niners are very weak on interceptions and pass breakups, which suggests that Tampa Bay might be able to have their usual big passing day while avoiding the INTs that destroy their scoring machine.
In the end, the result of this game may boil down to one matchup — Bucs QB Jameis Winston vs. Niners CB Richard Sherman. Winston is struggling this year with a rash of INTs, while Sherman may have skewed the stats by intimidating opposing QBs. They just don’t test him that often, which makes it hard for him to intercept passes.
But Winston makes bad choices when throwing, as evidenced by his soaring interception rate this year, and those choices might include throwing at the wily veteran cornerback, who has 32 career INTs. Sherman has basically shut down his side of the field this year — or perhaps, quarterbacks have shrewdly calculated that throwing at the other side of the field makes a lot more sense than going in Sherm’s direction.
If this game boils down to a head-to-head matchup between Winston and Sherman, it should be a very enjoyable day for Niners fans.