The Denver Broncos are on a roll of late, winning three straight over the Chargers, Steelers and Bengals to improve to 6-6. They are a game back of the Baltimore Ravens for the second wild card berth and trailing several teams in tiebreakers, but they’re playing some solid football of late.
There have been two keys to their turnaround. Their offense has been strong on the ground, and their defense has done a great job forcing takeaways. The Broncos defense has forced 21 turnovers this season, but nine of them have come in the last three weeks. The Broncos defense has given up large yardage totals this season, but when they force turnovers, it doesn’t matter. They lost Chris Harris Jr. to a broken leg, so that will be something to watch, but that defense is ferocious.
Of course, our San Francisco 49ers are not so good when it comes to forcing turnovers. The 49ers defense has forced five turnovers this season, and they are well ahead of pace to set the NFL record for fewest turnovers forced in a season. The record is 11, last matched by the Chicago Bears in 2016, who went 3-13 that season. The other teams in the Hall of Shame include the 1982 Indianapolis Colts (0-8-1 in a strike-shortened season), the 2013 Houston Texans (2-14), and the 2015 Dallas Cowboys (4-12).
There are some similarities in those teams’ final records. The 49ers are 2-10 and 2-14 is a very real possibility. This has come in spite of a team that has faired well in the popular net yards per play stat. Net yards per play looks at offensive and defensive yards per play, and is a popular stat among the gambling community. The 49ers net yards per play is 0.1, which is tied with four other teams for 13th. Coincidentally enough, the Broncos also have 0.1.
The 49ers defense has struggled with takeaways, and their offense has not been much better with giveaways. The 49ers have committed 25 turnovers, which is tied with the Buffalo Bills for second worst, behind the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This has resulted in the 49ers ranking dead last with a -20 turnover differential.
If the 49ers are able to add a top-notch pass rusher this offseason, I suspect we see an improvement in the turnover differential. Furthermore, it is a stat that often reverts toward the mean. You need talented players, but there is a certain amount of luck in turnovers.
We’ve talked about turnover differential in the broader sense, but it will be of particular note this weekend against the Broncos. I don’t expect the 49ers defense to force many (if any) turnovers, and so it’s on the offense to at least keep the differential even. Nick Mullens got off to a strong start, but has regressed to a certain degree. He put together big numbers vs. Seattle, but as he said on Wednesday, they need to be getting into the end zone. If they can maintain control of the ball on offense, an upset could be in the offing.