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The 49ers rediscover takeaways in Week 16 vs. the Bears

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Somehow the switch flipped back on. Finally.

Chicago Bears v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

One of the great mysteries (and tragedies) of this San Francisco 49ers season has been the bizarre lack of takeaways. They have two interceptions on the year; the season record for fewest in NFL history is three, by Houston in 1982 (in a season with only nine games, due to a strike). The winless 2008 Detroit Lions had four. So with one game left, the 49ers are easily on target to be the worst intercepting team ever.

The story on fumbles has been similar. Through Week 15, San Francisco had three fumble takeaways on the year, tied for the all-time NFL season low. Put the two together and it was even worse — five combined takeaways, compared to the NFL record low of 11 for a season. The team went six full games without a take away of any kind.

Some of this was bad luck. Footballs bounce randomly, and the Niners recovered only three of 12 forced fumbles before Week 16. That bad luck is likely to return toward the mean next year. But mostly, squads make their own luck.

And that’s what San Francisco did against the Chicago Bears. The Niners came away with two forced fumble recoveries, almost doubling their season total, and had an interception by K’Waun Williams that was called off due to a ticky-tack foul on linebacker Fred Warner.

Better yet, there could have been a lot more. Marcell Harris (#38) set the tone early, at 8:24 of the first quarter; he got beat on a deep ball to wide receiver Allen Robinson but pulled on the pigskin with both hands as he took him down.

The first fumble recovery came in the second, when pressure on an option played pushed Mitchell Trubisky to toss it wide. However, he threw an overhand wobbler to RB Tarik Cohen instead of the usual underhand toss, and K’Waun Williams was right there in his face. The unnerved second-year player never really secured the ball, which bounced around until DeForest Buckner hauled in his third career fumble recovery.

Things really picked up in the second half. At 11:47 of the 3rd quarter, Marcell Harris yanked the ball out of Allen Robinson’s grasp, but the fumble call was reversed on review because the receiver’s knee touched down a split second earlier. Do that ten times, and at least five will be official fumbles.

Just 45 seconds later, Elijah Lee pulled another one out — also ruled down. At 9:40 of the 3rd, CB Richard Sherman did a great job pulling at the ball on a run, but did not get it to pop out. With 54 seconds left in that quarter, another ball did come out, but just after the play was blown dead.

It was beautiful. I don’t even care how many of those balls popped out or were recovered by the bad guys. If you keep playing like that, you will win. Period.

All this effort paid off in crunch time, with Chicago clinging to a 14-9 lead just inside the two minute mark of the 4th quarter, trying to run out the clock. Tarvarius Moore, who we’ve written about recently, continued his run of top notch work even after he was beaten on a pass route.

He wrapped up Allen Robinson for a tackle with his left arm, then expertly punched out the ball with his right. It bounced into the waiting arms of Greg Mabin; SF ball. The pigskin literally flew ten yards in the air. That’s how good the punch-out was.

My point is, this sudden resumption of takeaways was no fluke, and future coach Richard Sherman explained why in great detail after the game. Sure, Sherman allowed, there were some great individual performances. He gave credit to the two rookies, both recently promoted to starters due to injury, who made the key plays.

Marcell Harris deserves a ton of credit. I think he’s going to be in the mix to be a starting player next year. … Tarvarius obviously played really well and gave up the catch at the end, but made up for it by punching the ball out, very heady play for a young kid.”

But the big change, Sherman noted, was about defensive teamwork. “I promise you, it’s just guys playing sound.” The defense was bad. Then it got better, but there were still some holes that opposing QBs could take advantage of. And now that they’re closing up those holes, one by one, we can see the outlines of a very “stout” defense, to use the veteran CB’s word.

Take the K’Waun Williams INT that was called back. An intense pass rush had Trubisky scrambling all over the place, while good coverage shut down his pass options. He finally threw into the end zone, at a place where Williams made a great play. Half the time, that penalty doesn’t get called, and the team might clean it up by next year in any case.

Sherman got more specific on the fumbles.

“There were multiple guys swarming, it’s more of the swarming mentality. I think guys are playing more free, playing faster, it’s not one guy making the tackle. It’s not a bunch of one on one tackles, it’s a bunch of 3, 4, 5 guys grabbing on to him and then you can go for the strip attempt, but when it’s one-on-one you don’t get those same opportunities. So I think it’s more of just more guys flying to the ball, and being where they’re supposed to be.”

The veteran took care to praise the rookies, who need to hear that encouragement, but the key was not an individual play at all. The defense already has a great run defense, an improving pass rush, and promising young DB talent in Harris and Moore. Add a couple of pieces with top five draft picks this spring, and this defense could sneak up on a lot of teams next year.