The San Francisco 49ers have a chance to do something once thought unfathomable earlier this season: win back-to-back games on the road.
This is the scenario as the 4-8 49ers travel to take on the 2-10 Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium in Week 14.
San Francisco is coming off a 26-20 overtime victory over the Chicago Bears and will look to capitalize on that momentum against quarterback Johnny Manziel and a struggling Browns team ranking near the bottom in nearly every significant offensive and defensive category.
Despite being listed as one-point underdogs, per Odds Shark, the 49ers have an excellent chance to build on last week's positives and reach for their fifth victory in 2015.
So how will San Francisco go about doing this?
Offensively, running back Shaun Draughn will have a chance to get some revenge against the team that released him earlier this season. Defensively, San Francisco will look to continue what it did well in Chicago—eliminating big plays and, hopefully, coming away with a turnover or two.
So what should fans expect out of the 49ers in Week 14 on both sides of the ball?
Offensive Game Plan
Despite last week's victory, the 49ers offense remains problematic in a number of critical areas. Moving the ball efficiently enough against a suspect Bears defense was difficult, as the 49ers were outgained 364 yards to 291.
Factor in the two missed field goals by Chicago kicker Robbie Gould, and San Francisco shouldn't have even had an opportunity to win in overtime.
Punter Bradley Pinion was busy on the day with nine punts, but the 49ers had some slight improvement on third down, converting seven of 16 attempts.
A balanced approach will be the mandate for San Francisco's offense. And it will start by establishing the running game.
Take a look at the Browns' 2015 defensive statistics:
|2015 Browns Defensive Rankings|
|Points Allowed||Yards Allowed||Pass Yards Allowed||Net Pass Yards/Attempt||Rush Yards Allowed||Yards/Attempt|
Cleveland ranks near the bottom defensively, and its run defense is particularly vulnerable. This unit stands at No. 31 out of 32 NFL teams, and the 4.6 rushing yards allowed per attempt opens up plenty of opportunity for Draughn.
Draughn is averaging just 3.3 yards per run over four games with San Francisco. But he has emerged as a nice pass-catching option out of the backfield. He had five catches for 50 yards in Chicago.
As a whole, the Browns grade out with a minus-55.6 grade against the run, per Pro Football Focus. But the 49ers have a minus-51.4 run-blocking PFF grade on the season. So this particular matchup looks to be more weakness versus weakness rather than a bout between two strengths.
If the 49ers can establish the run early enough—potentially fueled by Draughn's added motivation against his former squad—quarterback Blaine Gabbert should have an easier time with play action.
Such was the case when Gabbert connected with wide receiver Torrey Smith for a game-winning 71-yard touchdown in overtime.
Take a look at how play action set up Gabbert's deep strike to Smith:
Cleveland's secondary is nothing like that of Chicago. (The Bears currently rank No. 2 in the NFL with just 2,530 pass yards allowed.) And the 49ers offense should have additional opportunities with Browns defensive backs Justin Gilbert (concussion) listed as doubtful for the contest and Joe Haden (concussion) ruled out, per head coach Mike Pettine.
A simple, yet effective offensive game plan will be the necessity for San Francisco's offense.
The Browns lack the playmaking ability to halt any rhythmic approach from an opposing offense, so the 49ers should be able to take advantage of this frequently and often.
Defensive Game Plan
San Francisco's defense has finally started to come on as of late. In back-to-back weeks, this unit has held both the high-flying Arizona Cardinals and Bears to a net total of 39 points and 701 yards over Weeks 12 and 13.
This is a vast improvement over what was seen earlier this season, and signs are pointing to defensive coordinator Eric Mangini having his squad effectively managing coverage schemes without risking too much in the way of assignment confusion.
The 49ers still have some hurdles to climb on this side of the ball, though.
Mangini's unit has allowed the fifth-highest yardage total in the league (4,741) and ranks No. 27 against the pass (3,239 yards allowed) and No. 28 against the run (1,502 yards allowed).
Overall, the 49ers are still stuck in the bottom tier, according to PFF:
|2015 49ers Defensive PFF Rankings|
|Overall||Run Defense||Pass Rush||Pass Coverage||Penalty|
|Pro Football Focus|
Fortunately, Cleveland is suffering its own offensive woes on the season. While San Francisco ranks dead last on offense, the Browns come in at No. 30 with just 216 points scored.
Manziel will be a focal point of the 49ers defense. And as defensive tackle Mike Purcell noted earlier this week, keeping the mobile quarterback within the pocket will be a necessity for San Francisco's defensive efforts.
The Browns have done a solid job in pass protection this season with a plus-10.5 pass-blocking grade, per PFF. So that means the 49ers defensive front will have to win over at the line of scrimmage—an assignment likely suited for rookie defensive end Arik Armstead.
Armstead is seen here collapsing the right side of the Bears pocket last week using his sheer size to his advantage:
The rookie may not be able to pile up pressures on Manziel. But if he can box out one side of the pocket, allowing San Francisco's interior rushers to converge, the 49ers might be able to contain Manziel's mobility.
And when he's under pressure, Manziel's passer rating drops from 93.8 to 79.6, per PFF.
Another focal point for San Francisco is Browns tight end Gary Barnidge. He leads Cleveland with 60 receptions on the season, and six of his seven touchdowns have come within the red zone.
It's not hard to see how much of a matchup problem he can be, according to Chris Trapasso of NFL.com:
Mangini's coverage schemes may vary to contain Barnidge's abilities. But we should expect linebacker NaVorro Bowman and safey Eric Reid to play a pivotal role in covering the 6'5" tight end.
Look for turnovers to be a factor in this game as well. Cleveland has a minus-five turnover differential compared to San Francisco's minus-two.
Key Players and Matchups
Bowman and Reid versus Barnidge will be one of the aspects upon which the outcome may hinge. San Francisco's perennial All-Pro linebacker had his issues in coverage early this season but finished the 49ers' last three contests with positive PFF marks (0.6, 1.3 and 0.4).
With Cleveland's rushing attack ranking dead last in the league (887 yards), Manziel's ability to move the ball through the air will be the primary threat to the 49ers defense.
Therefore, an effective pass rush will need to be applied. It may be difficult depending on the status of the 49ers' best pass-rusher Aaron Lynch (concussion), who is listed as questionable, which will put more pressure on Mangini and Co.
Browns wide receiver Travis Benjamin (shoulder) is listed as probable for the game and leads the team with 826 receiving yards. Pettine stated that he is "ready to go," so look for the 5'10" receiver to match up frequently against the 49ers' No. 1 cornerback, Tramaine Brock.
On the flip side, Gabbert's ongoing evaluation will continue and, beneficially, it will be against a weak Browns defense.
But the biggest offensive weapon San Francisco will employ is Draughn.
And one can't forget about 40-year-old veteran kicker Phil Dawson, who spent the first 14 years of his pro career in Cleveland. With Odds Shark's spread, this game could come down to a last-minute field goal off Dawson's leg.
Both the 49ers and Browns are going through their own offensive woes in 2015. But San Francisco seems to have a slightly better edge on defense entering this contest.
It also doesn't hurt to have a little road momentum in the 49ers' favor.
Week 14 may reveal an ugly game for both sides—a contest featuring not knockout blows from two heavyweights, but rather a bout between two struggling franchises attempting to find their respective ways.
Yet the Browns seem to have more question marks on the field at this point compared to their counterpart 49ers. And this plays into San Francisco's favor despite being on the road.
The 49ers still have a long ways to go before returning to prominence. But Cleveland is a team San Francisco should be able to beat.
A 21-13 victory for the Niners seems about right.
Peter Panacy is a Featured Columnist covering the San Francisco 49ers for Bleacher Report. Follow him @PeterPanacy on Twitter.