SANTA CLARA, Calif. — In search of solutions for the problem that plagued them most in 2018 — an NFL record for futility in creating turnovers — San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan turned to a roughly 40-mile stretch of northeast Alabama.
Born about 3½ years apart smack in the middle of SEC country, Ford, from Odenville, Alabama, was mostly unaware of Alexander, from Oxford, Alabama, as a high school and college player. Alexander knew of Ford, but more so for Ford’s pass-rushing exploits at Auburn while Alexander was going through his own recruitment process before landing at LSU.
In fact, Ford and Alexander had never met until March 14 at the Niners’ training facility. The previous day, the 49ers had finalized the duo’s lucrative contracts for a combined nine years and $139 million, going so far as to surrender a 2020 second-round pick to acquire Ford. While Alexander and Ford will play different positions, the Niners’ directive to their two expensive acquisitions after a season in which their defense forced just seven turnovers was clear: Go. Get. The. Ball.
“That wasn’t fun to watch,” Lynch said. “It is something we have to live with. It’s a reality, and we needed to change that. These are the type of players that we believe can reverse that trend.”
If recent results are any indication, there’s reason to believe the investment will lead to a turnover turnaround.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, there wasn’t a player in the league who created more turnovers in 2018 than Ford. By that tracking, Ford was responsible for forcing 10 turnovers (a combination of seven forced fumbles and three interceptions as a result of his pressure).
Alexander missed 10 games last year with a torn ACL, but he has forced or recovered eight fumbles and come up with six interceptions in 46 career games. Alexander’s six forced fumbles are tied for third among all non-edge-rushing linebackers since he entered the league in 2015, and his six interceptions are tied for ninth in that span among all linebackers.
“[Alexander is] always around the ball,” Lynch said. “There’s so many things to like, but that is definitely something that jumps. And then Dee, he has a knack for getting the ball out. … We think that can help our entire team get that virus going, where we’re taking away the ball on a regular basis.”
For Ford, the ascension to elite football thief has been five years in the making. Upon entering the league as a first-round pick of the Kansas City Chiefs in 2014, Ford didn’t consistently get to the quarterback until his third season, when he jumped from registering four sacks to 10. Despite a nagging back injury that limited him in 2016 and cost him 10 games in 2017, Ford managed to generate pressure on the quarterback consistently.
What Ford didn’t do was force turnovers. He had just two forced fumbles during his first four seasons and didn’t get his first one until his third season. But once he figured out how to beat his blocker on a regular basis, he knew the next step was prying the ball loose. Ford said it became a “mindset” that he and his fellow pass-rushers talked about often.
The goal switched from taking the quarterback down to knocking the ball out. So, it became a focus in practice, meeting rooms and regular conversations. Ford even picked the brains of other dominant edge rushers, including the Denver Broncos‘ Von Miller. Last year, it all clicked as Ford forced seven fumbles, most in the NFL.
“That’s the next level of getting to the quarterback,” Ford said. “You’re used to beating the guy, it’s just now you start going for the ball.”
For Alexander, the penchant for football thievery has long been an obsession. Referring to himself as a “ball hawk,” Alexander also spent his first official day as a Niner referring to the mindset necessary to generate turnovers.
Projected to play weakside linebacker, Alexander won’t have as many opportunities for strip sacks as Ford; but Alexander’s sideline-to-sideline speed often puts him in position to be the second man in on a tackle and go for the ball. Likewise, Alexander’s speed helps him in coverage, which can lead to interceptions.
Even when Alexander himself isn’t getting the ball out, he believes driving home the importance of making such game-altering plays is something that can permeate a locker room.
“They know I’m gonna go get the ball, and it’s contagious, so everybody sees me go get it, they’re gonna want to go get it,” Alexander said. “As long as we’re building and we’re on the same page and the communication is great, we’re gonna go get that.”
Last season, the 49ers finished with seven takeaways, only two of which were interceptions. Both were fewest in the league and NFL records. Over the past two years since Lynch and Shanahan took over, the Niners rank last in the NFL in takeaways (27), turnover margin (-28) and interceptions (12).
In a league where turnover margin remains the greatest and simplest indicator of wins and losses, those numbers are nearly impossible to overcome. Which is why San Francisco didn’t hesitate to pay the hefty price necessary to add a dynamic edge rusher like Ford and a speedy linebacker like Alexander.
“Speed and violence affect the quarterback and make people do stupid things before they want to,” Shanahan said. “Both of these guys have a lot of speed, and they both play very violent.”