Browns vs. 49ers: 4 Things San Francisco Has To Do To Avoid Letdown
They could call it a “trap” game. Or the Overlook Bowl. Or the Bye Week Stale Game. Going into this Sunday’s contest hosting the Cleveland Browns, the San Francisco 49ers have nothing much to prove and everything to lose.
From the inside, however, teams this time of year always welcome a two-week layoff between games. It lets everyone heal, rest and rejuvenate. For a coaching staff, the hours during training camp and the regular season are long, grueling and pressured. Working normal 40-hour weeks during the bye week can seem like a vacation compared to the 110-plus hours that go into week-long preparations for the game.
But in light of the 49ers’ 25-19 win over Detroit, a win that cemented their status as a team on the rise with a defense that has become a genuine force, it would be normal for a fan to wonder if the bye week could stall the team’s momentum.
Hot teams want to stay hot, but it’s not easy to do when you’re off the job. Here are four things coach Jim Harbaugh and staff will focus on to have the 49ers ready to avoid a letdown Sunday against the Browns.
[Quotes from Harbaugh press conference courtesy of the 49er PR staff.]
Edgy, Not Relaxed
The Browns are 3-3 but could be the worst .500 team in the NFL. The record of their opponents is 16-25. They beat the Seahawks 6-3 in a game last week that had the Browns register a 43-17 advantage in time of possession and yet didn’t score a TD. Browns QB Colt McCoy completed 20-of-35 passes for 178 yards and was sacked five times and threw an interception.
Yet Cleveland won. And that should make the Niners wary. Cleveland’s defense appears to be quite stout. The Browns stand as the second-best in pass defense at 172 yards allowed per game and fourth-best in total yards (291).
The Browns defense features some of the best young talent in the league, including defensive tackle Phil Taylor, defensive end Jabaal Sheard, and cornerback Joe Haden (23). In talking to the press on Monday, Harbaugh made a point praising Cleveland’s defense.
“[They] play extremely well on defense, that’s what I’ve watched the most of. Very disciplined,” Harbaugh said. “They’re very creative in their schemes. And they play very well—very clean in their assignments, and in their technique. Very aggressive on the back end, just a lot of good, aggressive movement with the corners. They’ll take chances.”
It is a cliché to say that a team needs to avoid turnovers and do its best to maintain control of the ball. Along with a strong defense and good special teams play, that has been the successful formula for the 49ers so far.
Which makes avoiding the critical mistake even more important in this game. A team that should have a difficult time scoring a lot of points doesn’t need an emotional accelerant like a fumble recovery near the goal line for an easy TD. Making Cleveland earn every score will go a long ways to getting the 49ers to 6-1.
Don’t Worry About Looks
Those who watched all of the Seahawks-Brown game last week might require electronic stimulation to break down catatonia, but it should be noted that as far as the record shows it was a W for the Browns.
From the 49ers' perspective, there’s a palpable feeling in the Bay Area that the team is getting better. And there also comes with that a rising expectation for the team to perform as expected. And against a team like the Browns who appear weaker than their record, many Niner fans may want a 31-6 waxing to validate their feelings the team has earned a place among the NFL’s elite.
Which is the wrong thing to do. Each game takes on a life of its own. With linebackers like D’Qwell Jackson and Chris Gocong (51), Cleveland sports a team that can wreak havoc on an offense. Harbaugh noted as much.
“They’ll break on the ball,” Harbaugh said. “They’ll press you. They play very well on the back end. Very athletic at the linebackers (Jackson and Cocong)…They’re good on the edges. Personnel is talented, and they’re very, very well-coached. And they have a great understanding of what they’re doing. It’s a salty, salty defense.”
Cleveland will be the decided underdog in a matchup of two strong defensive teams with limited offensive dynamics. We saw something similar in the Seahawks-Browns and the Ravens-Jaguars games last week. These were games less than deep in aesthetics. But aesthetics don’t count. All that matters is the outcome, even if it’s an ugly, offensively limited win.
The Niners have posted back-to-back games in which Frank Gore has gone well over 100 yards and Kendall Hunter is a threat as a change-of-pace backup. Handling Detroit’s strong defensive line for a 200-yard-plus rushing game at Ford Field was one of the eye-opening stats so far in the 2011 season.
Teams have to respect the run. And that should, early in each possession and early in the game, set up play-action passes that are designed to get big yards.
Ted Ginn Jr. has the speed but not the hands to be an elite receiver whose mere presence makes a defense back up. At the same time, Harbaugh sounded less than enthusiastic at the status of Braylon Edwards, whose surgically repaired knee may not be 100 percent Sunday.
Nonetheless, offensive coordinator Greg Roman might be more willing to take the chance on big plays that start with a run fake and end with a deep throw to Michael Crabtree or even tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker. It is a good way to get an aggressive, fast Cleveland defense to take its focus off Gore.
The Browns on offense rank in the bottom third of the league in points, averaging 16.2 to rank 27th in the league. They have been outscored by 23 points in six games.
Efficiency in the passing game has been lacking. Quarterback Colt McCoy’s 5.5 yards per pass attempt reflects an anemic offense. Receivers Greg Little and Mohammed Massaquoi together average about 11 yards a catch for their 43 receptions.
Running backs Montario Hardesty and Peyton Hills have just 133 rush attempts between them in six games, about 22 a game combined with an average per attempt of well under four yards per. Interestingly, McCoy (12) has 24 runs, indicating that he’s been flushed from the pocket and makes the most of the opportunities.
McCoy also has been sacked 13 times. Considering some of the weak defenses the Browns have faced, here’s where the Niners should have a decided edge. They should be able to bother if not bring down McCoy relatively frequently. What’s more, if the 49ers get a decent lead early in the game, the Browns’ running game will pose less of a threat, enabling the likes of Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks to focus on crashing the pocket.