NFC West: turnover differential

The San Francisco 49ers held an 11-3 record at this point last season.

They were plus-25 in turnover differential, a margin they seemed very unlikely to duplicate in 2012. It was natural to assume the team's record might suffer when the turnover margin regressed to a more realistic figure.



The turnover differential has definitely regressed. The 49ers are only plus-eight in that category through 14 games this season. But at 10-3-1, they have lost only one-half game in the standings. That half-game swing would seem to reflect the St. Louis Rams' improvement as much as any significant shift for the 49ers.

San Francisco has improved quite a bit on offense. The 49ers' cumulative total for expected points is 66.0 through Week 15, up from minus-13.2 at this point last season. The team's defensive EPA stands at minus-72.4, nearly as good as the minus-83.1 figure at this point last season. Other variables come into play, obviously. Teams change from year to year. Opponents change. The ball bounces differently.

Those expecting the 49ers to fall into the 9-7 range when the turnovers stopped flowing so furiously weren't on target. I personally thought the 49ers would be very unlikely to repeat their 13-3 record from last season simply because that is a high bar to clear. While they cannot get to 13-3, victories over Seattle and Arizona would leave them at 12-3-1 -- as close as a team can come to 13-3 without being 13-3.

The 49ers have committed 14 turnovers and collected 22 this season. The figures were 10 and 35, respectively, at this point in 2011. Seattle has committed four fewer turnovers and forced one additional one. Arizona has committed two additional turnovers while doubling the number of turnovers forced from 16 at this point last season to 32 at present. The Rams' numbers have stayed about the same.

The Cardinals' fall in the standings despite a doubling of turnovers collected shows how much the offense has declined. Arizona was at minus-28.8 expected points on offense through 14 games last season. The figure is minus-179.2 this season, last in the NFL by 85-plus points. Arizona's defensive EPA stands at minus-75.3, which ranks second in the NFL. The figure was plus-6.8 last season, which ranked 15th.

Here's how NFC West teams can recover

January, 28, 2012
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It's only fair to expand our recent San Francisco 49ers discussion to the rest of the NFC West.


As noted previously, the 49ers led the NFL in turnover differential during their 13-3 season. The question then became whether a natural evening out in that department might drag down the team's record in 2012 without improvements in other areas, notably on offense.

The chart expands the turnover-differential information to show all NFC West teams.

The Rams' minus-seven figure in fumble recovery differential stands out as something likely to change in the team's favor for 2012. St. Louis recovered 13 of its own 27 fumbles, but only six of its opponents' 24, an unusually low rate that should improve.

The 49ers' offense recovered only 35.7 percent of its own fumbles (5 of 14), also a somewhat low figure.

Arizona's defense recovered a division-high 60 percent (9 of 15), but a minus-13 differential on interceptions hurt. I would expect Patrick Peterson to pick off a few more passes in 2012. Adrian Wilson missed a few chances this season.

Where NFC West teams rank in turnovers

October, 6, 2011
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Only the Pittsburgh Steelers have forced fewer turnovers than the Seattle Seahawks this season.

Pittsburgh has one. Seattle has two.

"We're trying to do everything we can, but when you don't affect the quarterback and you're not getting to him -- we didn’t get any sacks last week -- that’s where most of it starts," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said Wednesday.

The Steelers are a league-worst minus-10 in turnover differential. They committed 11 total turnovers against Baltimore, Indianapolis and Houston, but none in their game against Seattle. The Seahawks have recovered none of their opponents' four fumbles. Studies have shown fumble recovery rates to be random, meaning Seattle should gain in this area over the course of the season. The Seahawks recovered 10 of their opponents' 22 fumbles last season.

Meanwhile, the San Francisco 49ers sit atop the turnover-differential standings, tied with Baltimore at plus-eight.

The Ravens collected seven turnovers against Pittsburgh in Week 1. The 49ers have forced turnovers at a more consistent pace, collecting three apiece against Seattle, Cincinnati and Philadelphia, and two against Dallas. They rank tied with Detroit and Minnesota for the fewest giveaways with three.

The chart shows where NFC West teams stand in turnover differential. The 49ers, Indianapolis Colts and St. Louis Rams are the only teams with fewer than two interceptions. Each has one.

Regular blog contributors beaudini0607 and fundadfor2 requested turnover-differential stats after seeing where NFC West teams rank in various NFL categories.

I've gone through data from ESPN Stats & Information to produce a chart showing turnover differential by interceptions, fumbles and overall. For example, the New York Jets have three more interceptions and seven more opponents' fumble recoveries than they have allowed, producing a league-leading plus-10 overall differential.

The San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals rank among the worst teams in differential.

Teams with hard-hitting, opportunistic defenses and ball-control offenses can use turnover differential to keep games close.

Luck also plays a role in turnovers, and sometimes that luck can run out.

Looking at the ESPN Stats & Information chart, which shows turnover differential through Week 4, the Baltimore Ravens have to feel pretty good about where they stand. Winning or evening out the turnover battle could make the Ravens enough tougher to beat (Baltimore has forced only two turnovers so far).

The San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals are minus-6 in turnover differential. Both have played three of their first four games on the road. Both have suffered from shaky play in the passing game. I would expect their turnover differential to improve as they play more games at home.

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