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49ers vs. Browns Preview: Browns Defense Overrated?

Jim Harbaugh and Alex Smith were quick to point out that the Cleveland Browns ranked fourth in the league in overall defense (yards allowed) coming into week eight. They are also first in the league in passing yards allowed. I'm not so sure if these stats accurately portray the level the Browns defense is playing at. Perhaps Harbaugh is focusing on their gaudy defensive rank to prevent complacency from his team.

Offensively, it's quite clear the Browns have struggled. Colt McCoy is averaging just 5.5 yards per pass attempt and is completing only 56 percent of his passes. If the Browns are going to run the west coast offense, he has to do better than that. Cleveland also ranks 29th in rush offense, averaging 91.2 yards per game and 3.3 yards per carry. This is not an explosive offense the 49ers are facing.

After the jump, I'll take a look at how Football Outsiders ranks the Browns on offense and defense, as well as take a look at some of the key matchups and how the 49ers match up against them.

Let's take a closer look at the Browns defensive numbers to see if the raw stats tell the whole story. For the sake of simplicity I'll call the yards allowed stat the "traditional rank."

Traditional Defensive Rank: 4th (291 yards per game allowed)
Football Outsiders Rank: 14th
Traditional Pass Defense Rank: 1st (171.5 yards per game allowed)
Football Outsiders Pass Defense Rank: 13th
Traditional Rush Defense Rank: 20th (119.5 yards per game allowed)
Football Outsiders Rush Defense: 15th

I think a big reason for the discrepancy between the "traditional" ranking and the Football Outsiders ranking is the strength of their opponents. The past two weeks the Browns faced Kyle Boller for much of the game against the Raiders and Charlie Whitehurst last week. Those two quarterbacks aren't exactly elite. They have also faced the Dolphins and Colts this season. It's safe to say they haven't had the toughest schedule. The best quarterback they have faced this season is between Matt Hasselbeck and Andy Dalton.

Offensively, I think Dennis Green and I would agree that "they are who we thought they were," which is not good. Football Outsiders ranks their overall offensive efficiency at 29th in the league. The Browns run the west coast offense and rely on the running game to give Colt McCoy manageable third downs. So far, it hasn't worked out well, and even if they do have a third and five, McCoy is completing under 60 percent of his passes for only 5.5 yards per attempt. 

The 49ers are the wrong team to try to set up the pass with the run against. The Browns may be setting themselves up for third and longs if they try the Jimmy Raye offense of "run-run-pass." And no Jimmy, "run-run-draw" won't work either, you geriatric.

If the 49ers shut down the run like they are capable of, I can't see the Browns winning. The Browns also only have three points combined in the first quarter this year. It will be key that the 49ers get up early and force the Browns to pass the ball. Then the 49ers can go to their fantastic 4-3 over defense with Justin Smith and Ray McDonald moved inside.

Aldon Smith may be a lot quieter on Sunday, as he will have to go up against one of the best left tackles in the game in Joe Thomas. But this will also open things up for Justin Smith, who will get to go up against the Browns rookie left guard Jason Pinkston. I don't care how good of a rookie a guy is, he isn't ready to go up against Justin Smith. With Tony Pashos most likely taking on Ahmad Brooks, Ray McDonald also gets to go up against a guard. The right guard for the Browns is second-year player Shawn Lauvao. The guards are the weakest link on the Browns line, and they get to go up against the two best players on the 49ers defensive line.

Offensively, the 49ers may not put up 30 points, but they can score more than enough to win. The Browns rush defense is worse than their pass defense, which bodes well for the 49ers. Frank Gore and the offensive line have been on a tear as of late, and if they can continue that the Browns should be in for a long day. At worst I see the 49ers winning an ugly game with a heavy dose of Frank Gore and defense. If they can get the passing game going, then I think it will be a blowout.