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Limiting Turnovers Key for Nick Mullens and 49ers to Remain in the Hunt

Despite the number of injuries and setbacks the 49ers have had to deal with this season, the team sits in the top half of the league in a number of categories, including passing defense (4th), total defense (6th) and rushing defense (10th) among others. It's noteworthy to highlight San Francisco's level of play through 12 weeks despite the team's influx of hurdles, namely, the significant injuries that have ravished the 49ers roster.

While the team's defensive performance as of late can't be overlooked, ball protection, or lack thereof, has been a glaring hindrance to San Francisco's offensive production.

The 49ers lost the ball three times in the Week 12 win over the Los Angeles Rams, giving up 10 points in the narrow defeat. Fortunately for San Francisco, the 49ers defense notched four takeaways on the day, helping win the turnover battle.

In the prior matchup against the New Orleans Saints, the 49ers coughed up the ball a season-high four times and the most since their Week 3 matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2019 (5). New Orleans scored 17-difference making points off turnovers, leading to San Francisco's 14-point loss.

The 49ers have had two-or-more giveaways five-straight contests, something that has become a focal point for head coach Kyle Shanahan and San Francisco's offense down the final stretch.

"If I had to give you one thing, just as a whole, as a group I really want to cut down our turnovers," Shanahan said on Thursday. "The games that we've lost, our turnovers had gotten way carried away and I thought they did last Sunday, too. We were fortunate that our defense had four. That to me is the first thing we've got to fix and having guys out there a little bit more, I think, will give us a better chance to do that."

The 49ers have 20 giveaways this season, the fourth-most in NFL. Only the Denver Broncos (26), Dallas Cowboys (23) and Philadelphia Eagles (21) have more. Shanahan hopes with the return of key starters, continuity will help minimize the unit's costly mistakes. 

Last week, the 49ers saw the return of Deebo Samuel and Raheem Mostert to the offense. Brandon Aiyuk is set to rejoin the team in Week 13 after missing his second contest of the season due to being placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list.

Having a stable of healty offensive pieces should bode well for Nick Mullens, who is set to make his fourth-straight start of the season. It will be the first time since Week 4 that Mullens will have all three playmakers at his disposal.

San Francisco's quarterback will be tested on Monday against a Bills team which has forced 17 turnovers this season, the seventh-best mark in the league. Buffalo's pass rush win rate (53 percent) ranks second in the league behind the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers (57 percent). Meanwhile, Mullens has thrown seven interceptions and lost two fumbles over his last seven contests. Reversing that stat will be crucial for San Francisco if the team has any hopes of keeping their playoff chances alive.

"As a quarterback, it's the most important thing – protect the football," Mullens said. "That's something that you have to work on. But I feel like the more preparation, keeping two hands on the ball in the pocket and just the harder you work at the small details, I feel like turnovers take care of themselves. And so, that's what I've been focusing on.

"I know last game we coughed a couple up, but that's the biggest thing, just focus on the details, high and tight. For me, crisp, sharp decisions, know where to go with the football and being strong in the pocket. So, it's really just hard work, focus and working on the fundamentals, and turnovers take care of themselves."