SANTA CLARA — Until his recent string of heists, 49ers linebacker Takeo Spikes went more than three seasons without wrapping his hands around the ball.
No interceptions. No fumble recoveries. No fun.
"I dropped two balls last year, and I was very sick about that," he said.
Lately, though, Spikes has put the "take" back in Takeo. He has interceptions in three consecutive games.
That total tops all NFL linebackers this season and is as many as the 49ers secondary combined (Walt Harris, Nate Clements and Tarrell Brown each has one interception).
Spikes is one of the few 49ers defenders playing well heading into Sunday's game against the No. 1-ranked New York Giants offense at the Meadowlands.
Not surprisingly, Spikes said the key against Eli Manning and Co. is to create turnovers. That's what the Cleveland Browns did Monday, coaxing three interceptions including one that Eric Wright returned 94 yards for a touchdown.
"That just kills the offensive spirit. Kills it, man," Spikes said. "Those are some of the things we have to capitalize on."
Spikes' own spirit-killing streak has reached the team record book. He is the first linebacker in 49ers history with interceptions in three consecutive games. He is the first 49ers player at any position to do it since safety Tony Parrish had interceptions in five straight games in 2003.
At this rate, Spikes could be the first 49ers linebacker to lead the team in interceptions since 1984, when Keena Turner tied safety Ronnie Lott with four.
Turner, now a 49ers executive, said Spikes has the same philosophy he used to have: Expect the ball on every play. It's a lesson Lott learned from former USC cornerback Dennis Thurman, who passed it along to Turner, who sees it now in Spikes.
"I think that when you watch Takeo, he's not surprised," Turner said. "He's actually prepared for the football when it comes. That's a mind-set on a defense.
"It's why some guys make such clean interceptions and clean plays in the blink of any eye. They are looking for it. They expect to make a play."
Said Spikes, "Once you get the first one, then you'll start seeing more balls. For whatever reason that is, that's just how is."
It helps that Spikes can catch what's thrown his way. Linebacker Patrick Willis found himself marveling during Wednesday's drills at the way Spikes handled balls shot out of a Jugs football machine.
No matter the velocity, Spikes gathered each ball as if he had pillows on his palms.
"You can tell by the way he catches the ball that he has soft hands, like a receiver," Willis said.
The 49ers think they made a nice catch of their own by landing the two-time Pro Bowl player on Aug. 12. The team had struggled to replace longtime presence Derek Smith, who was dumped to save $2 million on the salary cap.
Brandon Moore tried to fill the void but failed, as did free-agent Dontarrious Thomas and seventh-round pick Larry Grant.
Jeff Ulbrich won the starting strong inside linebacker spot out of training camp. But Spikes wrested that away, too — his first takeaway of the season.
The veteran took over the starting job in Week 4 against New Orleans, the same day his interception streak began with a leaping grab of a Drew Brees pass.
"He's gotten more and more comfortable in the scheme," Turner said. "And now that he's gotten comfortable, his experience and talent are taking over and he's making some plays."
Contact Daniel Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.