Heading into the game, the 49ers are seen as seven-point favorites over the Browns, who may be without Deshaun Watson for the second consecutive week, as the quarterback has missed consecutive practices while ailing from a shoulder injury.
The line continues to shift in favor of the 49ers as Watson misses time, leading many to speculate that San Francisco could have an easy matchup against the Browns, especially after they were shellacked 28-3 by the Baltimore Ravens in Week 5 with backup quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson earning the start.
However, there is a certain factor that could make this game difficult for the 49ers, even if the final score doesn't end up representing it: Cleveland’s elite defense.
With the Browns starting the season off at 2-2, most recently losing to the Ravens, they haven't earned much national acclimation, but their defense has performed at an extremely high level to begin the season.
Looking at the Browns defense, one wouldn't assume they have a strong run defense, given that Cleveland gave up 135 yards a game (28th in the NFL) and 4.7 yards per carry (25th in the NFL) in 2022.
However, the team signed starters Dalvin Tomlinson and traded for Za’Darius Smith in the offseason, while adding backups Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and Maurice Hurst via free agency to bolster a weakened defensive line alongside star Myles Garrett.
Additionally, the team hired new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, who has helped transform the unit into one of the NFL’s best in 2023.
As a result, with help from improved linebacker play, the Browns have galloped to fourth in the NFL, allowing just 71.8 rushing yards per game, while their 3.2 yards per carry mark to opposing offenses ranks second.
After shoring up their defensive line, the Browns are seeing the dividends pay off early, despite facing solid rushing attacks with the Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh Steelers, Tennessee Titans, and Baltimore Ravens through the first four weeks.
While the run defense has been spectacular, Cleveland’s bread and butter in 2023 has been their pass defense, led by their trio of talented cornerbacks in Denzel Ward, Greg Newsome II, and Martin Emerson.
The Browns currently allow just 196.8 total yards per game (1st in NFL), 125 passing yards per game (1st in NFL), 3.8 yards per play (1st in NFL), 26.5 pass attempts per game (1st in NFL), and 15 points per game (1st in NFL).
Looking further into the numbers, the Browns allow the lowest third-down conversion rate at 22.6%, which has propelled them to dominate the time of possession in games, where they, not coincidentally, rank first with a 34:59 average time of possession.
What do all of these statistics mean?
Not only are the Browns dominant against the run, forcing tough situations on later downs, but they're even better in defending the aerial attack, trusting their cornerbacks to tighten up in man coverage, which leads to more opportunities for sacks and lesser third down conversions for opponents.
The Browns’ revamped defensive line has been getting to the quarterback at a high rate.
While their 12 sacks rank 20th in the NFL, the Browns rank second with a sack percentage of 10.17, meaning they just don’t have enough defensive plays to accrue the volume to gain a higher sack total because they get off the field at such a high clip.
The defensive line certainly has a ton of talent, aided by star Myles Garrett’s best season yet thus far, but the group has received some extra help from defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, who has elected to dial up the pressure at a higher rate.
According to Next Gen Stats, Cleveland has blitzed on nearly 30% of plays this season, a 2+ percent increase from 2022.
Their decision to bring extra rushers has paid dividends for Myles Garrett, who has seen his double-team rate drop from 31.1 percent in 2022 to 26.9 percent in 2023, leading to more one-on-one opportunities for the top pass rusher.
The 49ers plan
The Browns have a talented group of defenders, mixed in with coordinator Jim Schwartz’s ability to maximize their floor, leading to some early sparks for Cleveland on that side of the football.
After demolishing the Cowboys last week, the 49ers will now place their focus on an even tougher opponent, the Cleveland Browns, who will look to be the first team to stop San Francisco from scoring at least 30 points this season.
Now, Cleveland looks to be at a disadvantage offensively, as quarterback Deshaun Watson’s status is trending down after multiple missed practices thus far this week, which means that the defense will have even more pressure to perform against a high-caliber opponent.
But, it’ll be intriguing to see how head coach Kyle Shanahan game plans for the Browns, who could build upon the Cowboys’ effective plan of stopping Christian McCaffrey on the ground last week.
I wouldn't be surprised to see more misdirection from the 49ers in creating favorable matchups in the passing game, potentially focusing more on George Kittle with man coverage across the board, which obviously worked to fruition in Week 5.
The 49ers should still win comfortably if Watson is unable to go, but don’t sleep on the Browns' defense in this intriguing Week 6 matchup.