The Cleveland Browns have won three straight against the San Francisco ’49ers, but they’ll have to improve dramatically from last week’s 6-3 victory over Seattle if they hope to extend their winning streak to four on Sunday.
Cleveland’s ‘D’ has been a top five defense in the NFL this year, which is surprising considering the youth on that side of the ball. The offense, however, has been horrid, pathetic, and dismal – to say the least – through the team’s first six games, and show no signs of improving. If not for the defense, the Browns are likely a 1-5 team.
San Francisco has been quite the surprise in the NFL under first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh. They currently sit at 5-1, and in first place in the NFC West. A rejuvenated Alex Smith at QB, as well as an excellent season by RB Frank Gore, has been huge for the ‘49ers offense, while LB Patrick Willis, DE Justin Smith, and DE Ray McDonald have been leaders on a defense that’s ranked second in the NFL against the run.
On paper the Browns offense is greatly overmatched against the ‘49ers ‘D’. San Fran may boast the #2 run defense in the NFL, but they rank 22nd against the pass. Cleveland’s offense ranks 29th in the run-game, and 22nd through the air. Although Cleveland’s run defense has improved against the run, they still rank 20th in the NFL in run defense, but have the NFL’s best passing-defense. Unfortunately, the ‘49ers bread-n-butter on offense is the running game, which ranks 6th in the NFL, as opposed to their passing game, which ranks 31st.
In short, the ‘49ers should easily dispose of the Browns, at least on paper. However, there are things the Browns can, and must, do to hand San Francisco their second loss of the season.
Time For The Real McCoy
Sunday could be a defining moment in McCoy’s young career. No one on the Browns roster needs to have a bigger game than McCoy, and the opportunity is certainly there.
We thought he’d have a “break-out game” last week against an awful Seattle secondary. Instead, he had his worst game of the season, throwing for 178 yards, one interception, and a dismal 5.1 average per completion against the 19th ranked Seahawks secondary. Since week one, McCoy has gradually regressed as a starting NFL quarterback and no one can seem to figure out why.
It’s frustrating as a Browns fan to watch McCoy play. At times he looks like a potential franchise QB, and other times he looks like a third-stringer at best. No one puts more pressure on McCoy, than McCoy himself. Combine that with his early season struggles and Mike Holmgren’s recent comments about the future of the QB situation in Cleveland, and it’s no wonder McCoy has seemingly gotten worse since opening day.
McCoy certainly exerted the effort to become a successful starting QB for the Browns during the off-season, but that so far hasn’t translated to success on the field. Fans will argue that McCoy clearly isn’t the answer at QB for the Browns, but I would disagree. Think about everything he’s been handed this season; the lockout that resulted in a shortened off-season and a new offensive scheme that’s being coached by a guy that (for some reason) thinks he can handle head coaching, and offensive coordinating duties. Not to mention, Cleveland’s best offensive weapon, Peyton Hillis, has been a bit of a drama queen this season. Hillis is really Cleveland’s only legitimate threat on offense. Without him McCoy is forced to look to rookie WR Greg Little, a slightly improved WR in Joshua Cribbs, and a second-year RB coming off a season-ending knee injury in Montario Hardesty, to provide the kind of explosiveness that makes Coach Shurmur’s offense successful.
I would argue that a lot of what’s wrong with Colt McCoy falls in Coach Shurmur’s hands. His play-calling has been horrific, and the mechanical issues that seem to plague McCoy could easily be fixed with a little extra coaching. Contrary to popular belief, there is talent on Cleveland’s offense, but Shurmur doesn’t utilize his weapons properly. Little, Cribbs, and Hardesty can be solid contributors on offense if they aren’t being forced to take-on more than they can handle. Evan Moore is an athletic freak that should see more targets than he does, and newly acquired RB Chris Ogbonnaya appears to be a nice addition to the roster.
The point is if the Browns offense is going to ever get it going early in games instead of late, Coach Shurmur has to put his players in the best position possible to be successful. He should also really look at putting McCoy in the shotgun formation more; otherwise he’s going to have to turn to Seneca Wallace to replace a dead McCoy. The ‘49ers are subject to big plays through the air, so McCoy & Co. need to get it together early on Sunday if the Browns hope to win.
Go All-Out on Offense
I don’t know what it’s going to take for Coach Shurmur to realize that this offense just simply isn’t working. His offense is horrible, despite there being some talent there on offense. As I stated above, I don’t feel he utilizes his weapons properly; there’s no way Evan Moore, Greg Little, Josh Cribbs, and maybe even Carlton Mitchell (activated for the first time this week), don’t deserve more attention on offense.
Former offensive coordinator Brian Daboll was often criticized for his questionable play-calling ability, but at least he provided some excitement every now and then. He wasn’t afraid to take risk, and the Browns used fake-punts and other trick plays in upset wins over New England and New Orleans. The talent on the current Browns roster is a complete 180 from what Daboll had to work with last season, so one is bound to wonder why Coach Shurmur can’t do more with the players he has on offense.
Coach Shurmur has the talent, but he also has a starting QB that plays as if he really lacks confidence. The short yardage routes are nice, when successful, to chew-up the clock and keep the chains moving, but to win games and keep the defense honest, you have to take shots down field.
For once it’d be nice to see Coach Shurmur call a game that involves taking risk. Little or Cribbs on a screen-play, Moore matched-up on the outside against a smaller defender on a go-route, or even screen plays to Hardesty (if he could hold onto the ball) would all greatly improve this offense. San Fran is likely to load the box and make McCoy beat them with his arm. Hopefully Shurmur’s play-calling allows that to happen.
Force Alex Smith to Beat You
We’ll see just how much the Browns run defense has improved on Sunday, as the ’49ers boast one of the premiere rushers in the entire NFL in Frank Gore. Gore is the 8th leading rusher in the league, and is averaging 90.2 yards per game.
That’s not good news for the Browns. Cleveland’s ‘D’ is giving up 119.5 YPG. They’re likely to see a bunch of one receiver sets from the ’49ers offense, which will certainly test Cleveland’s front seven. T.J. Ward has been a great find for the Browns at the safety position, and is much better against the run than he is in pass coverage, though he is improving. Ward will be critical in run-support, as will Cleveland’s other safeties, Mike Adams and Usama Young.
You’d be hard pressed to find a corner that’s playing better than the Browns’ Joe Haden is right now. No matter who the ’49ers put out there, whether it’s Kyle Williams, Michael Crabtree, Ted Ginn, or former Brown, Braylon Edwards, Haden should be able to cover San Fran’s top receiver. If the Browns can successfully stop the run, and contain Gore, Alex Smith will be forced to win the game, much like Colt McCoy for the Browns.
The Browns may shut-down whoever San Fran’s #1 receiver is, but TE Vernon Davis is an athletic freak that will look to exploit Ward, Adams, or Young’s coverage skills from the safety position. Ward is as physical of a safety as you’ll see in the NFL, as is Young, but their play in pass coverage has been shaky at best.
Outside of Gore and Davis, the Browns match-up pretty well against everyone else on San Fran’s offense. Smith has improved greatly from last year, but is more of a “game manager” than a QB. If the Browns ‘D’ can contain Gore (a little better than they did McFadden) and make Smith beat them with his arm, the Cleveland has a great shot at winning this game.
Stay Off the Ginn
The last couple weeks, Cleveland’s special teams unit has been under immense scrutiny for their lackluster play. They single handedly cost the Browns the Raiders game, and have faltered on more than one occasion this season.
Phil Dawson has been dealing with a leg injury, and if he’s unable to kick the ball out of the end zone for a touchback, San Francisco’s Ted Ginn is bound to make them pay. Ginn is right up there with Devin Hester, Josh Cribbs, and Leon Washington as the league’s top returnmen. He has 687 return-yards this season, and has a touchdown on both a kick return, and punt return. (Both came in the same game)
Cleveland can ill afford to have another special team’s meltdown because Ginn will certainly make them pay. I’m not sure what’s going on there, but Chris Tabor (Cleveland’s Special Teams coach) needs to figure it out before Sunday.
The injury report for the Browns this weekend isn’t a good one.
Peyton Hillis continues to add to his drama. Although he’s still listed as questionable and will make the trip, it doesn’t appear as he’ll be able to give it a go on Sunday. Worth noting, however, that the Browns are 2-0 without their best offensive weapon.
Should Hillis miss this weekend’s game, Montario Hardesty will likely start. Hardesty ran for 95 yards on 33 carries last week against a stout Seattle run defense. I would expect you could see more of newly acquired running back Chris Ogbonnaya if Hillis is, in fact, out. Ogbonnaya only had 15 yards on 3 carries, but led the team in receiving with 5 receptions for 43 yards. It’s also worth noting that Ogbonnaya was targeted 5 times in the passing game, catching all 5. That’s more than you can say for Hardesty, who tends to drop more than he catches.
K Phil Dawson (thigh), LB Scott Fujita (head), OL Artis Hicks (back) and CB Buster Skrine (hip) are all listed as probable. S Ray Ventrone (hamstring), LB Kaluka Maiava (knee), OL Tony Pashos (ankle), TE Benjamin Watson (concussion), Joe Haden (knee), and OL Shawn Lauvao (knee) are all listed as questionable.
Coach Shurmur said during his press conference today, however, that Dawson, Watson, and Lauvao are all likely to play on Sunday. Personally, I think that all of those listed as questionable, aside from maybe Hillis, are all going to play on Sunday.
Cleveland’s offense will take a hit, as WR Mohammed Massaquoi has been ruled out due to a concussion. Josh Cribbs will start in his place. A few weeks after being signed off the practice squad, DE Auston English has been ruled out against San Francisco.