The San Francisco 49ers host the Cleveland Browns this weekend and the 49ers offense will find themselves battling one particular weapon on the Browns defense. Cornerback Joe Haden has struggled with his health in recent weeks, but he is coming out of the Browns win over Seattle just about 100%. They have a few weapons on defense, but Haden is their biggest defensive threat.
The Cleveland Browns have a bit of an up and down defense. Football Outsiders ranks them 14th overall (13th against the pass, 15th against the run). What I found particularly interesting is that in the passing game Cleveland ranks number two against opponent's number one wide receiver, 22nd against the number two wide receiver, 30th against tight ends and 25th against running backs.
When you've got guys like Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker at tight end, and receiving options in Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter in the receiving game, I think we know how this game could develop. The 49ers will find ways to get Michael Crabtree and Braylon Edwards into the equation, but the 49ers will play to some of the matchups advantages that could emerge against the tight ends and running backs.
In spite of 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh's quarterback history, the 49ers are a team built around the run. They will still work plenty of passing into the game, but they are looking to establish the run first. It is not as simple as Mike Singletary's smash them in the mouth over and over again and hope to wear them down. Coach Harbaugh is looking for the same end result, but he is actually open to mixing things up to get to that result.
While the team is looking to develop a powerful rushing attack behind a dominant offensive line (a goal they are still developing), the passing attack operates as something more than complementary. Really, Coach Harbaugh would appear to be trying to turn this team into something similar to what he left at Stanford.
The Cardinal are off to a dominant start this year behind filthy rushing and a great offensive line. Andrew Luck has had some big games, but the win over Washington is likely a perfect example of what Jim Harbaugh would like to see in San Francisco. Andrew Luck has the skills to throw more than 169 yards and two touchdowns, but if the team can continually run at will, there's no need to open up the passing attack.
The 49ers offense has some additional similarities to the Stanford offense in the talent at tight end. Stanford does a great job using their tight ends, so it is only fitting that that Coach Harbaugh has the likes of Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker on hand in San Francisco. The tight ends have made some big plays in the passing game, but much of their best work has come in blocking, as we saw with Delanie Walker against Ndamukong Suh two weeks ago.
I think this week against Cleveland could be a chance to see the tight ends get back into the pass game a bit more frequently. If Haden is locking down his receiver and Vernon Davis is doubled as has started to become the norm, Delanie Walker could once again be in line for a big day. I said it two weeks ago and I'll stick with it. He had the big touchdown against Detroit, but I still think there is a monster receiving day on the horizon for Walker.
Additionally, I think Kendall Hunter might get some more pass catching opportunities this week. He has been held without a reception the last two games after having two big ones against Philadelphia and Cincinnati. Coach Harbaugh mixes things up enough that I could very well be proven wrong. Maybe the fact that it appears to obvious to me is one reason we won't see this kind of result unfold.
How would you attack this Cleveland Browns defense?