The San Francisco 49ers offense will have their hands full on Monday night as they try to keep the Cleveland Browns pass-rush out of their backfield. Coming into the season, many felt like Cleveland had the best defensive line in the league, and they have yet to disappoint. The Browns have pressured opposing quarterbacks 32% of the time, which is fifth in the NFL. Myles Garrett leads the way with five sacks, but he’s far from the only one getting after the quarterback. Sheldon Richardson, Olivier Vernon, and Larry Ogunjobi have all impressed in four games.
In the secondary, health has been the issue for the Browns. Starting cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams missed practice on Thursday, and have missed the last two games. The duo rode bikes on the side of practice Thursday, but their status remains questionable. Neither has practiced in three weeks, and the backups have filled in admirably. Their replacements, T.J. Carrie and Terrance Mitchell, are superior run defenders, which is important against a team like the 49ers. They are far from the players in coverage, though, and that’s where the speed of the 49ers can come into play.
Where the 49ers will attack
The Browns are middle of the pack in allowing big plays in the passing game. They’ve allowed 11 explosive plays, which ranks the Browns defense 19th. The team that leads the lead in explosive pass rate? The home team on Monday Night. Rewind a couple of weeks when Cleveland played the Rams. There are a lot of similarities between Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay’s offense. The same plays the Rams had success on should be the same plays the 49ers move the ball on. Play-action comebacks, curls, and “dig” routes, where the receiver crosses the field between 12-15 yards. The Rams chewed up a ton of yardage on these plays. That slows down the pass-rush since you’re leaving in more blockers, but it also opens up throwing lanes in the intermediate part of the field due to the linebackers biting on the run fake. This should be another game where Deebo Samuel has a day.
Both Brandin Cooks and Cooper Kupp went over 100 yards against the Browns. The vast majority of those yards came off play-action, where Cleveland’s cornerbacks had to guard the receivers for a split second longer, and that was enough to make a difference.
Not counting throws behind the line of scrimmage, here are Jimmy Garoppolo’s numbers when throwing outside the numbers: 17/28, 274 yards, four touchdowns, two interceptions, with an 86 passer rating. When Garoppolo throws in between the numbers: 24/31, 337 yards, one interception, and an 86.4 passer rating. Jimmy G averages more than a full yard more per attempt over the middle of the field. All of the crossing routes. All of ‘em.
Competent on the offensive line
Play-action will help slow the Browns pass-rush, but eventually, the 49ers offensive line will have to win their 1-on-1 battles. If Jimmy has a clean pocket most of the night, there will be plenty of smiles going around here. The five guys up front don’t need to be peak Joe Staley. All that’s needed is you can’t lose instantaneously—which is easy for me to say, I’m not blocking Garrett. Give Garoppolo time to see the field or the rush, and avoid it. Give your tight ends or running backs a chance to help you. We saw the line lose right away a few times against the Steelers, and it either killed the drive or led to turnovers.
Cleveland is stacked up front. There is no other way to put it. When you have four capable pass-rushers, it’s tough to double someone. That’s why they’ve had so much success. It’s also why the 49ers are able to excel on defense. Somebody wins. The Browns are going to win their fair share of battles. The Steelers were very good along the defensive line. Cleveland is better. Finding ways to curtail the Browns pass-rush has probably kept Shanahan up the past week. This will be a team effort. From Garoppolo getting rid of the ball fast to the running backs staying in a half count longer to block.
This is the biggest advantage for Cleveland. Shanahan knows that, which is why I’d expect a lot of max protection, play-action, quick throws, and screens. Using the Browns’ aggressiveness against them has worked so far this season. Opposing offenses haven’t been able to avoid the critical mistake, and that’s why Cleveland has had success. Under the bright lights, the Niners offense will need to play their first mistake-free game.