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49ers-Browns recap: 9 things I liked and didn't like

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Joe Thomas, Blaine Gabbert's accuracy, and inappropriate squatting. Here are nine things I liked and didn't like from the 49ers' embarrassing loss in Cleveland.

Jim Tomsula's San Francisco 49ers out-sadded the Cleveland Browns in the Factory of Sadness, losing in embarrassing fashion to fall to 4-9 on the season. Here are nine things I liked and (mostly) didn't like from that performance:

1. Inept offense

Geep Chyrst’s offense reached some impressive lows in Cleveland, fighting their way to one of the worst offensive efforts of the season despite receiving some significant advantages that should have made life much easier to put points on the board.

Technically the 49ers forced two turnovers on the day — a forced fumble by Ian Williams and an interception by Jaquiski Tartt — but in practice it was really three once you toss in Quinton Dial’s blocked field goal on the Browns’ opening drive. All three of those turnovers came in the first half, and combined with an excellent punt return from Bruce Ellington, the 49ers’ defense and special teams provided its offense with excellent starting field position throughout the half.

That had hardly been the case entering the week. Prior to the Browns game, the 49ers offense started their drives, on average, at their own 22-yard line, giving them the league’s second-farthest distance to travel to reach the end zone. But on their six first-half drives in Cleveland, Blaine Gabbert & Co. had an average starting field position of their own 44-yard line, with two drives beginning in Browns’ territory.

Starting drives at midfield is a massive advantage for an offense, but of course, it was one the 49ers were unable to capitalize on. Those six first-half drives produced 48 yards, two first downs, and three points. San Francisco recorded only a single first down following each of the team’s three forced turnovers, sandwiching a five-play drive that ended in a failed fourth-down attempt with two three-and-outs.

San Francisco would finish with 221 total yards by the end of the day, but 94 of those came on their final drive of the day and inflates their production in a way this team simply doesn’t deserve. Prior to that drive, the 49ers offense "produced" 127 yards on 46 plays. Some quick math tells us that works out to 2.76 yards per play, which would have been the third-lowest figure in any game this season. In a related note, the 49ers were also held under 3.0 yards per play against the Rams back in November, making them one of three teams to accomplish that feat this season.

Oh yeah, and all this came against the 30th-ranked defense by DVOA entering the week. Fun stuff.

2. Joe Thomas vs. 49ers edge rushers

Pick a Johnny Manziel pass from this game. Literally any one of them will do. I randomly selected this one from the second quarter:

Now watch Joe Thomas go to work at left tackle. On this play, he’s facing Ahmad Brooks and as you can see, Thomas actually goes on the attack. He stops Brooks in his tracks, who is left to jump in the air to make himself look busy, I guess. That sort of attacking approach is generally frowned upon for tackles, but this wasn’t the only snap Thomas went after the likes of Brooks or Eli Harold or Corey Lemonier and he made it look easy every time. Regardless of his approach, watching him effortlessly dispose of San Francisco’s outside linebackers snap after snap was something to behold. After watching the disaster that is San Francisco’s offensive line this season, it was like watching someone play a different sport.

Obviously, I’m not breaking new ground by telling you that Joe Thomas is really good at football, and I suppose this is technically a bad thing for the 49ers. But whatever, if you enjoy watching football being played at a high level, this was perhaps the single most enjoyable thing from this game.

3. OMG NINE SACKS

Watching the 49ers offensive line was not nearly as much fun. Whenever your quarterback is sacked nine times, there’s more than enough blame to go around and Matt Maiocco had a good sack-by-sack rundown of the carnage on Tuesday.

Gabbert ran out of bounds behind the line of scrimmage on three of the sacks and failed to get the ball out to an open Blake Bell during a fourth-and–1 conversion attempt on the opening play of the second quarter, leading to a fourth sack. Erik Pears and Marcus Marin continued to do Erik Pears and Marcus Martin things. Multiple sacks came as a result of Gabbert hanging on to the football too long as 49ers receivers failed to separate from the Browns’ lock-tight coverage downfield (try not to laugh too hard). It really was an impressive team effort.

San Francisco now ranks dead last in adjusted sack rate on the season. Early on in Gabbert’s now five-game run as the 49ers starting quarterback, one of the biggest advantages he offered over Colin Kaepernick was his ability to perform under pressure and get the ball out before taking sacks. With Gabbert struggling under pressure in each of the past two games, that advantage is slowly slipping away. With Alex Boone done for the season and a Bengals pass rush that ranks seventh in adjusted sack rate coming to town, there’s little reason to think we’ll see that trend reverse itself this week.

4. Blaine Gabbert’s accuracy

While we’re on the topic of Gabbert, his accuracy continues to be his greatest deficiency. The throws Gabbert misses because of inaccuracy, and there were several, are obviously important, but just as crucial are the throws where his errant ball placement inhibits his receiver from taking advantage of open field after the catch.

Torrey Smith’s lone reception of the day went for 17 yards, but had potential to turn into his fourth 70-plus-yard touchdown of the season with better ball location from Gabbert:

Thanks to play action and max protection from the 49ers, the Browns end up with eight defenders up near the line of scrimmage after the snap. Two of the remaining three defenders are in man coverage on Smith and Anquan Boldin, with the third being the deep safety in the middle of the field. Boldin occupies two of those defenders with his vertical route from the slot, and Smith gains separation on his dig route from the outside. These factors combine to leave Smith with more than half the field wide open in front of him. If Gabbert leads Smith across the field, there’s a reasonable chance he takes this to the house. Instead, Gabbert’s pass forces Smith to slow in order to make the catch, allowing Charles Gaines to recover and make the tackle.

Here’s another example on the final play of the first quarter, where Gabbert’s pass behind Blake Bell on the drag route costs the 49ers a first down:

Gabbert has now put together back-to-back poor starts, with accuracy and declining performance under pressure at the crux of his problems. He finished 113 yards below replacement level according to Football Outsiders’s opponent-adjusted metrics; only Matt Cassel was worse in Week 14. And even that oversells his performance, as that garbage-time touchdown drive gave Gabbert’s final numbers a hint of respectability that didn’t exist over the first 57 minutes of the game.

Gabbert’s not getting any help from his supporting cast or Chryst’s unimaginative route concepts, but it would be difficult to argue that he hasn’t been worse lately, irrespective of what’s happening around him. He’ll get to head back to Levi’s this week, where the 49ers have been much better this season, but he’ll also have to face an eighth-ranked Bengals defense that’s actually been better on the road this season by DVOA.

5. Defensive line was the shiny turd

It seems a little weird to say considering the 49ers allowed over 200 yards on the ground to Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson, but I thought several members of San Francisco’s defensive line put in solid performances.

Ian Williams had an excellent game, finishing with four stops and one defeat, which came on his forced fumble late in the first quarter. He now has 30 stops on the season, trailing only NaVorro Bowman among 49ers defenders. Few interior defensive lineman have been playing better football lately.

Quinton Dial added four stops of his own and was the only player to record multiple defeats on the day, picking up a sack of Manziel in the second quarter and a third-down stop of Crowell in the fourth quarter. And that doesn’t include his blocked field goal early in the contest.

Arik Armstead continues to be San Francisco’s best pass-rushing defensive lineman despite receiving limited snaps. He finished with five quarterback pressures (one sack, four hurries), per Pro Football Focus, and did some of his best work of the season against the run.

Even Tank Carradine, who has very few positive moments to hang his hat on in a 49ers uniform, looked solid in his new role outside in sub-packages, which will certainly be something to monitor over these final three games.

It’s been a little while since I’ve posted updated stop and defeat numbers, so here’s how things look after 13 games:

Player Stops Defeats
N. Bowman 56 8
I. Williams 30 4
M. Wilhoite 28 4
Q. Dial 26 6
A. Lynch 25 16
A. Brooks 21 9
K. Acker 21 8
T. Brock 19 11
J. Tartt 17 6
E. Reid 16 6
J. Ward 15 8
A. Bethea 12 4
G. Hodges 11 3
A. Armstead 10 5
G. Dorsey 10 0
T. Jerod-Eddie 9 6
D. Johnson 6 2
M. Cromartie 5 3
T. Carradine 5 3
M. Purcell 4 2
C. Lemonier 4 1
E. Harold 2 1
C. Davis 1 1
N. Bellore 1 0
K. Reaser 1 0

6. Not the time to squat, bro

Following a 35-yard reception that was called back for an illegal motion penalty midway through the third quarter, Quinton Patton thought this would be a good idea:

I generally steer clear of anything that could be construed as get-off-my-lawn-and-show-some-damn-respect-on-that-field speak. After all, I’m not a bitter old sportswriter just yet. Ultimately, these guys are all playing a game and I have no issues with players treating it as such. But c’mon. As a young receiver who has shown some flashes of ability, I want to root for Quinton Patton. But he makes it incredibly difficult by continuing to do idiotic things seemingly any time he does something positive on the field.

7. Browns’ big-play offense

Johnny Manziel and the Browns offense repeatedly shredded the 49ers defense for big gains on Sunday, producing eight plays of 20 yards or more. If that feels like an excessive amount for the 29th-ranked offense by DVOA entering the week, well, you’re right. Over their first 12 games, the Browns produced a play of 20-plus yards on just 5.2 percent of their offensive snaps. Against the 49ers they more than doubled that rate (11.3 percent).

Isaiah Crowell, who I mentioned as the model for inefficiency just a couple of weeks ago, ripped off two runs of more than 50 yards on his way to a 145-yard day; Crowell had previously never topped 35 yards on any one run.

Johnny Football did Johnny Football things (right down to the horrid interception) and created several big gains outside the structure of the play, including this 30-yard pass to Gary Barnidge late in the first quarter:

More impressively, Manziel made just as many big plays from the pocket, with half of Cleveland’s six passing plays of 20-plus yards coming within the structure of the play. Regardless of whether he was inside or outside the pocket, Manziel was able to connect on deep throws, finishing the day 4-of–5 for 111 yards on passes that traveled 15 or more yards in the air.

It was a frustrating performance to watch from a 49ers defense that had gotten much better at preventing the big play as the season wore on. After getting embarrassed by Ben Roethlisberger and Carson Palmer in the first three weeks of the season, only the Colts had given up more plays of 20 yards or more than the 49ers. Since that time, however, they’ve been far more respectable. Between Weeks 4 and 13, San Francisco gave up the 10th-fewest 20-plus-yard plays in football.

With A.J. Green and Marvin Jones next up on the docket, Eric Mangini must hope his defense can put a lid on these big plays or it’s going to be a long day at the office.

8. Best special teams performance of 2015

Outside of Phil Dawson, who’s now connected on 19-of–20 of his field goal tries this season, it’s been a rough year for San Francisco’s special teams. Entering Week 14, the 49ers had the 29th-ranked special teams by DVOA. Their return units have been among the worst in football, and the punt and kickoff units haven’t been much better.

Sunday’s effort against the Browns was their best to date. San Francisco posted their best special teams DVOA of the season by a solid margin, which was enough to bump them up a couple spots in the rankings.

Dial had the aforementioned blocked field goal early in the game and came incredibly close to blocking another one. Ellington had a 36-yard punt return that set up the 49ers offense with the ball in Browns’ territory. Patton had a solid kick return midway through the second quarter.

If you remove Cleveland’s final possession following Dawson’s failed onside kick attempt, the Browns had an average starting field position of the 23-yard line. Bradley Pinion’s work on kickoffs (touchbacks on both kicks) and punts contributed significantly toward that field position advantage, as he put in one of his better performances of the season. And of course, Dawson hit his only field goal attempt.

It wasn’t nearly enough to keep the 49ers competitive, but in a game where very little went right, strong play from the special teams was worth noting.

9. Only three Sundays left to feel like this…