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After hitting rock bottom, the 49ers appear to have found their way

The team has found balance, and ways to take the ball away

Minnesota Vikings v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

A little over three weeks ago, the San Francisco 49ers suffered one of their most brutal losses in recent memory, getting severely outclassed at home by an Arizona Cardinals team that was missing its starting quarterback and top two wideouts.

That loss put them at 3-5 on the season, facing a daunting backstretch of the season that presented a schedule that made a playoff run appear to be all but a pipe dream.

Since that day, the 49ers have not lost a game and seem to have gotten their mojo back. So what exactly changed for San Francisco that led to this resurgence?

Winning the turnover battle

Dissecting the outcome of a football game can be significantly simplified. Nothing decides the outcomes of a given game more than turnover differential usually will. Generally speaking, it’s no surprise that the teams that cough up the ball struggle, while the teams generating extra possessions for their teams enjoy significantly more success.

Following their Week 9 loss to Arizona, the 49ers had a turnover differential of -9. Since Week 10, they are +5 in turnover margin and have generated multiple turnovers on defense in all three of those games. They also did not commit a turnover in two of the three games. However, early in the Minnesota game, the lone interception was quickly overshadowed by an offensive explosion that saw them put up their third 30+ point game in as many weeks.

Finding success in the ground game

In their first eight games, the 49ers only eclipsed 150 rushing yards as a team once ( a Week 5 loss versus Arizona) and in large part hit that number because the quarterback had 16 rushing attempts in that game. However, since then, the 49ers have surpassed 150 yards rushing in each of the three games on their current win streak, and as a result, they have been able to dominate the time of possession battle.

The 49ers have held the ball for nearly two-thirds of the total game clock over their last three games, having an advantage of at least 15 minutes over their opponent in each of those games as well. This has allowed the defense to consistently stay on the sideline for extended periods, a luxury that was not present during the first half of the season.

A balanced approach on offense

As a result of the running game clicking, the 49ers have also been able to maximize their efficiency in the passing game, largely due to the fact they rarely have been in spots where it is beyond evident they will be dropping back and throwing. This has allowed Kyle Shanahan to generate large chunks of yardage with pass calls while also limiting the exposure to turnovers in the air by curbing the number of attempts in the air.

On their current three-game win streak, the 49ers' offense has recorded 556 passing yards and 535 rushing yards, nearly identical totals, which speaks volumes to how balanced their offensive attack has been. After a tumultuous start to the season, Shanahan is pulling all the right strings while the 11 players on the field are simply executing at a level that wasn’t there as a unit when the 49ers hit their early season skid.

Avoiding costly penalties

This may come as a surprise to some (it certainly was to me), but the 49ers are in the top ten in terms of the fewest penalties committed in the entire league (they are currently 9th with 63 through 11 games). The quantity of penalties has actually been very admirable. The issue is that the majority of the season, the penalties the 49ers accrued were almost always in a crucial spot.

Gifting opponents' first downs due to a defensive pass interference penalty, stalling a drive with a false start in the red zone, erasing an explosive run because of a hold, etc. These mental mistakes haven’t been happening anywhere near as frequently as they did before, and the 49ers are proving that when they don’t gift opposing teams momentum and or second chances with egregious penalties, they are actually a really hard team to beat straight up.

All in all, you’d like to think that a team as talented as the 49ers would be able to win the turnover battle, not gift-free first downs, be balanced on offense, etc. For whatever reason, the cohesion between those things took 10 weeks to come to fruition, but the good news is, the 49ers are proving that when they are able to check all of those boxes, they are as tough of a matchup for their opponents as any other team in the league.