"It's something we practice on each week," cornerback Jason Webster said. "It's something that's emphasized - you know, turnovers on defense. We try and do it every opportunity that we have."
Webster was referring to stripping the ball from opponents, but the Niners also have become proficient at picking it out of the air with the rangy members of a secondary that has matured as a unit through the first quarter of the season.
Webster and safety Tony Parrish each had long returns on interceptions that led to scores against the St. Louis Rams last week. Parrish returned his pick 50 yards during the second quarter before barely being tripped in Rams territory. In San Francisco's first three games, Parrish ended each of the opponent's first offensive drives with either an interception or fumble recovery.
Webster didn't have to worry about being tripped after his interception. A heavy pass rush led to an errant pass that was tipped in the air and fell like a feather into the waiting arms of Webster, who had nothing but green field ahead of him and returned it 37 yards for a touchdown - San Francisco's first defensive touchdown of the season.
"That's exactly what it was - the classic tip drill," Webster said. "I think you can say that was a gift. I went from being ready to tackle to having the ball come right in my hands."
But the Niners have been putting themselves in prime position to collect such gifts. They spend time daily in practice on tip and reaction drills, and also have a "swarm" drill at the beginning of defensive sessions when the entire defense converges on a football that is being thrown back and forth between coaches.
"We just basically run after the ball," defensive end Andre Carter said. "By doing that, you never know if somebody's going to cause a fumble and pick up the ball. It's something we do together to get the defense pumped up."
Carter is part of a defensive line that has created havoc with its pumped-up pass rush and has made a big contribution in the Niners' creating more turnovers, particularly interceptions.
"A major factor is the pressure we're getting from the defensive line," Webster said. "The quarterbacks are having to rush their throws and throw sometimes with a defender in their face. That's given us an opportunity to get some balls, catch some interceptions."
Entering tonight's game, safeties Tony Parrish and Zack Bronson each were tied for fifth in the NFC with two interceptions. Parrish was second in the conference with two fumble recoveries.