It’s been more than two weeks since the San Francisco 49ers have taken the field, and it feels like a mini-offseason has passed. With head coach Kyle Shanahan’s team riding high into the bye at 3-0, it was not an ideal time for a bye.
But with an early bye week, it’s allowed for two weeks of preparation to face the 2-2 Cleveland Browns, who come into town after defeating the Baltimore Ravens last week in decisive fashion. The Browns have been somewhat of a roller coaster ride this season, coming in with monumental expectations, but falling flat in the season opener. Cleveland’s bounced back since, but which version of the team will show up on Monday night at Levi’s Stadium?
Both teams have a lot of talent on both sides of the ball and have high hopes for making the playoffs this year after numerous seasons being on the outside looking in. Here are four matchups that will determine the winner on Monday Night Football.
1. San Francisco’s run defense vs. Cleveland’s RB Nick Chubb
Cleveland traded away running back Duke Johnson in the offseason, signaling that the Browns’ backfield was going to be heralded by second-year tailback Nick Chubb.
The former Georgia rusher had an impressive rookie season and has been off to a hot start again this year. He was unleashed against the Ravens, putting up 183 all-purpose yards and three rushing touchdowns to seal the deal for Cleveland. Coming into Monday’s showdown, Browns’ head coach Freddie Kitchens is expected to call on Chubb’s number a lot to aid with leaky pass protection.
On the flip side, 49ers’ defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has been brewing up quite a run defense here in San Francisco — which has only allowed 75 yards per game on the ground so far. The 49ers’ defense is also the only unit in the NFL not to give up a rushing touchdown through four weeks.
San Francisco has played running backs Ronald Jones II, Joe Mixon, and James Conner and have taken their lunch money. The Browns are going to look to run the ball down the 49ers’ throat. Which unit will give in on Monday night?
2. San Francisco’s receivers vs. Cleveland’s secondary
Wideouts Deebo Samuel, Marquise Goodwin, and Dante Pettis have been solid so far this season. Play caller Kyle Shanahan has been able to scheme all of those guys open, and they have responded, making numerous plays in the 49ers’ three wins.
On paper coming into the season, Cleveland’s secondary was highly touted. They were bringing back rookie standout corner Denzel Ward and then drafted corner Greedy Williams from LSU to start opposite of Ward.
However, with early injuries to both players, they have landed on the injury report and are officially listed as questionable for Monday’s showdown. It’s a huge loss for Cleveland if they’re without their two starting corners against the 49ers’ aerial attack. Veterans T.J. Carrie and Terrance Mitchell have been filling in — but can they stick with the 49ers’ shifty, quick receivers?
3. San Francisco’s left tackle Justin Skule vs. Cleveland’s pass rusher Myles Garrett
Oh, how nice would it have been to have veteran tackle Joe Staley for this matchup? Browns’ edge defender Myles Garrett is developing into one of the game’s premier pass rushers, having six sacks and 13 tackles in his four games this season. Garrett is the type of player that can destroy Shanahan’s game plan, and I’m sure the 49ers’ head coach has been thinking of ways to contain the former Aggie.
Rookie left tackle Justin Skule was impressive in his debut start against the Steelers, blocking linebackers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree. Skule has been working with Staley, and let’s hope that the veteran has been imparting his wisdom into the rookie because he’s going to need all of it on Monday night.
San Francisco should also try and put tight end George Kittle on Skule’s side to chip Garrett as well to make life tough on him. San Francisco will need to block Cleveland’s edge players. Otherwise, it could be a long evening for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and the offense.
4. San Francisco’s defensive backs vs. Cleveland’s wideouts
No corner Ahkello Witherspoon and no corner, Jason Verrett. Two players that the 49ers were counting on will be watching from the sidelines on Monday.
On the opposite sideline, this will be the first game in which the Browns will get their top four receivers — wideouts Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, Antonio Callaway, and Rashard Higgins.
How will San Francisco match up against those four receivers? Defensive back Richard Sherman will hold down one spot, and second-year corner Emmanuel Moseley will start in his first game on the opposite side. San Francisco will also get back safety Jimmie Ward from injury as well.
This could be a matchup that’s really in favor of Cleveland, as they are the far more talented unit. Saleh will have to hope that his dangerous pass rush lands home before quarterback Baker Mayfield finds one of his weapons.