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Key to 49ers’ offense is holding onto the ball

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POSTED December 30, 2011 10:30 p.m.

SANTA CLARA (AP) — Despite San Francisco’s impressive 12-3 record, the 49ers’ offense leads the league in only one category — protecting the football.

San Francisco hasn’t committed a turnover in its last four games and leads the league in fewest giveaways with 10. If the 49ers don’t commit a turnover in Sunday’s season finale at St. Louis, they will tie the NFL record for fewest turnovers in a season set last year by New England.

The 49ers also lead the league with 36 takeaways, making their plus-26 turnover differential the NFL’s best. San Francisco ranks just 26th in the league in total offense, but that unit has contributed to the team’s successful formula by limiting mistakes and holding onto the ball.

The 49ers had a minus-1 turnover differential last season, when they committed 23 turnovers. The team’s skill players on offense are essentially the same as last year, but the big change has come in the methodology of first-year coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff that has transformed San Francisco into a contender after eight seasons without a winning record or playoff berth.

“There are other things that go into it other than, ‘Hey guys, let’s just take care of the ball today,’” Harbaugh said Friday after his team’s final practice of the regular season. “There is scheme, there’s philosophy that goes in there. It’s the pride that the players have in protecting the football, understanding situational football.”

Harbaugh said the 49ers have emphasized that scheme since the team’s first practice in July, and it certainly has showed in the results. San Francisco has not committed a turnover in its last 18 quarters since quarterback Alex Smith threw an end-zone interception in the final seconds before halftime of a Thanksgiving Day loss at Baltimore.

Smith has been the catalyst behind San Francisco’s low turnover rate. The seventh-year pro has thrown 415 passes this season but only five have been intercepted, the fewest of any starting quarterback in the league.

Some may call him a game manager, but Smith’s improved decision making and ball protection have been major factors in the turnaround season for Smith and his team. Smith was 19-31 as a NFL starter entering this year and had thrown more interceptions (53) than touchdown passes (51) in his first six seasons.

“You’ve got to do the little things to help give your team a chance to win,” Smith said. “Guys do it a lot of different ways, and sometimes they’re not the real noticeable thing. You talk about that winning edge, whatever it is with the quarterback, those are the things I look to.”

Smith has thrown 16 touchdown passes and enters Sunday’s game against the Rams with a career-best 90.1 passer rating, which ranks 10th in the league.

Even though Smith’s passing numbers this year pale in comparison to more prolific quarterbacks, Harbaugh openly promoted Smith earlier this month for the third NFC Pro Bowl berth behind Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and New Orleans’ Drew Brees. That spot went to New York’s Eli Manning.

“Alex has a great understanding of situational football and good football, and the difference between holding onto the ball and turning it over,” Harbaugh said. “He’s also been uncanny in the pocket. If he’s been hit or sacked, not giving up the sack fumble (or) the big momentum turnover that can lead to a change in field position, put points on the board for the opposition. He’s been outstanding in that regard.”

Smith has absorbed several crunching hits in the pocket this year, but has lost just two fumbles despite being sacked 41 times, more than any other NFL quarterback.

He’s not the only one doing a good job protecting the football. Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore, fourth among the NFL’s leading rushers with 1,202 yards, has 269 touches this season and has lost two fumbles, tying his career low.

The only other turnover by a San Francisco player this season was by tight end Vernon Davis, who lost a fumble after catching a pass during a Week 9 win at Washington.

The 49ers are aware of what the low turnover rate has meant to their season, but it wasn’t anything Gore wanted to discuss Friday with the team on the verge of a league record.

“We’ve been doing a great job at it, but I don’t want to talk about protecting the football,” Gore said. “We’ve just got to keep doing what we’ve been doing and keep it up.”

NOTES: Wide receivers Ted Ginn (ankle) and Kyle Williams (concussion) were held out of practice Friday for the third consecutive day and both are listed as questionable against the Rams. The 49ers released veteran Braylon Edwards earlier this week, leaving Michael Crabtree and Brett Swain as the only healthy wideouts on the roster. Swain, who joined the 49ers after starter Josh Morgan broke a bone in his right leg in early October, has one reception this season. . TE Delanie Walker, tied for fourth on the team with 19 catches, is listed as out with a jaw he injured last week and his status for the playoffs remains uncertain. . Five-time Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis practiced every day this week and could return against the Rams after missing San Francisco’s past three games with a hamstring injury. Willis was hurt early in the first quarter of the 49ers’ 26-0 victory over St. Louis on Dec. 4 in San Francisco.

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