Browns vs. 49ers: 5 Things We Learned in San Francisco's 20-10 Victory
In the end, it is easy to say that 95 yards of offense in the second half does not a great team make. But it was enough.
The discerning fan can point to a critical facemask penalty against Cleveland linebacker D’Qwell Jackson on Frank Gore that enabled San Francisco to keep its late drive in the fourth quarter alive, a drive that ended with a short but game-clinching field goal by David Akers for the final outcome of 20-10.
As avid fans, we see every play, and thus, we see every mistake. It seems to be human nature, or the pessimistic nature of all NFL fans, to discount early successes in light of late mishaps and failures. And the followers of the 49ers can certainly point to several issues in Sunday’s game as signs that the team remains lacking in key components to be considered an elite team.
That said, here are five things we learned in San Francisco’s 20-10 over the Cleveland Browns.
This was the first game over a decent opponent that San Francisco went into the game as not only the favorite, but a decided favorite. That is a considerable difference.
Playing as an underdog frees up the mind of all players; they have nothing to lose. Playing as the favorite, as the expected winner, during which any mistake can lead to more drastic consequences—namely, lose to a supposed lesser opponent—tightens up the mind.
It is a sign of a good team beating a lesser opponent, even more so when the favored doesn’t have its best game. Doing enough to win in the first quarter or late in the fourth quarter is doing enough to win, the object of the contest.
The 49ers came away with a victory that looked early on to be easy, especially when Frank Gore seemingly scored from the 1-yard line that would have made the score 24-0 in the second quarter. Nonetheless, it is important to remember that ugly wins by close margins over inferior opponents count as much as cohesive, explosive efforts over supposedly superior ones.
Aesthetics don’t factor in the standings. That the 49ers came away with a win, at home, over a weaker opponent means one thing and one thing only: they came away with a win. That’s all that matters.
Run and Run Again
The best play of the game came early in the first quarter. Cleveland pinned the 49ers inside their own 1-yard line. After a short run to the middle, Frank Gore (21) took a handoff and followed a convoy of 49er blockers around left end for a 24-yard gain.
It is a league supposedly built on passing, but in reality the NFL is built around big plays. That the 49ers do it more by running than passing may be less sexy, conforming or appealing to the casual viewer, it still remains the same: a large gain for first down and better field position.
That Frank Gore ended with 131 yards on a career-high 31 carries can be seen as a team that is limited in offense. Or, as most defensive coordinators would see it, it is a force to be reckoned with. And here is one stat in which that capability shows well for the 49ers: Cleveland had five fumbles, three that came on pass attempts.
The Niners had zero turnovers compared to two for Cleveland. The surest way to take care of the ball is for the quarterback to turn around and hand it to someone. Wait, check that. The surest way to take care of the ball is for the quarterback to turn and hand it to Frank Gore.
This is what may be the killer fact for 49er fans. The run-first, field-position-game is so Woody Hayes that it counters every artistic nature that Joe Montana and the 1980s 49ers came to represent, a state-of-the-art offensive machine.
Harbaugh is turning the run-first, field-position, let-my-defense win it mentality, a la Hayes, into the 49er formula. It’s working. Wins are wins, and that’s all that matters.
Smith a Little off
It wasn’t Alex Smith’s best game, and that’s a good sign. He missed some open receivers. Some good passes were dropped. And yet it didn’t hurt the 49ers. That’s a sign of a team that is playing to its strengths and doesn’t let adversity affect its intent.
In the fourth quarter, a play-action fake on 3rd-and-2 led to a deep pass to Michael Crabtree. He was open for a big play, but the ball sailed five yards over his head. If the 49ers were 2-4 and trailing by seven, the fans would be yelling for Smith’s head. Instead, it was just what it was—a missed opportunity.
It happens. Not everyone is perfect. But in the end, a 15-of-24 effort for 177 yards and a TD is, well, Alex Smith-like. Key stat No. 1: zero interceptions. Key stat No. 2: four runs for 22 yards, some on designed plays, some on scrambles.
Too many times in the past Smith has been put in position, when trying to rally the 49ers, to lose the game. With Harbaugh, a strong defense and a good running game means he just has to do enough to avoid disaster. And he did.
That Joe Staley and Isaac Sopoaga (90) combined for two catches for 34 yards indicates, depending on your point of view, either a team relying on trickery or a team relying on creativity to beat its opponents.
What does it matter? Passes to eligible receivers, albeit it tackles freed up by formation or defensive tackles inserted ostensibly for extra blocking who turn into pass receivers, count as much as downfield strikes to Braylon Edwards.
This seems to be just a hint of what coach Jim Harbaugh is capable of. That he does enough to give opposing coaches something to worry about is a real positive for the 49ers. But I don’t expect Joe Staley to lead the league in receiving.
All in all, you could have taken the view in the middle of the second quarter that this game should have been a 34-10 walk-in-the-park win. Lo and behold, Cleveland hung in there and made it close. And, yes, that facemask penalty on D’Qwell Jackson did indeed prove to be critical.
But then, it wouldn’t have been so critical if the Niners had scored on the 4th-and-1 play by Gore in the second quarter. In that same logic, it would not have been so critical if the Browns had taken control earlier and led the game by seven points late in the fourth quarter.
Football games aren’t won or lost on one play so much as the plays build into a cumulative reason for the outcome. That Cleveland was behind and trying so desperately to stop Gore in the fourth quarter on a 3rd-and-short running play was the result of Cleveland getting outplayed for much of the first half.
And that counts, too. The 49ers won because they did enough to win. Moreover, they did enough not to lose. In the end, that is the sign of a good team.