For the second week in a row, the San Francisco 49ers will be taking on an elite defense as they travel to Cleveland to take on a Cleveland Browns team only allowing 15 points per game and fewer than 200 yards per game. Can the Niners capitalize on any roster mismatches like they did against Dallas?
The DraftKings Sportsbook line would suggest so, as the 49ers are up to 10-point favorites with the total down to 36.5.
SF O SKILL (QB/WR) VS. CLE SECONDARY
It can’t be understated how dominant Cleveland’s defense has performed through four games (last week they were on bye). Opposing passing attacks are completing just 53.8% of attempts, the best mark in the league. They also lead the NFL in pass yards allowed (125.0 per game) and overall Defense DVOA (-27.5%). It’s a strong secondary with size and athleticism that will have the upper hand against most offenses.
The Browns’ outside cornerback duo of Denzel Ward and Martin Emerson Jr. have started red-hot this season, only allowing 17 catches on 38 targets combined (44.7%). Since moving to nickel full time in his second season, Greg Newsome II has been a solid defender and his 73.8 PFF coverage grade is second on the team behind safety Grant Delpit. Delpit has been a revelation this season after dealing with injuries early in his career.
The former LSU All-American is second amongst all safeties with an 87.9 coverage grade and has the Browns’ lone interception this year.
Even with the fast start, there have to be concerns for any team lining up against this 49ers passing attack right now. Purdy is playing like the best quarterback in football. Aiyuk is playing like a top 5 wide receiver, and he will be the best test for these Browns’ corners to date. Not to mention, the DVOA ranks of the offenses Cleveland has played so far: 25th, 27th, 22nd, and 11th.
Against that last opponent (Baltimore), the Browns had their worst defensive outing, posting a 52.1 coverage grade as a team. After watching the film, I am confident that Shanahan will find ways to attack this secondary and will put together a game-plan to create plays downfield.
SF O COMBO (RB/TE) vs. CLE 2ND LEVEL DEFENDERS
Another week of easy choices in this matchup level. Kittle had three scores. CMC scored in his 14th straight. It’s incredibly difficult to stop one of these guys, let alone both, and Kyle Juszczyk and hey look - Jordan Mason was efficient last week, too. If Elijah Mitchell comes back this week — he practiced on Thursday, this “combo” group will be even tougher to prepare for.
To Cleveland’s credit, they deploy solid run stopping linebackers in Anthony Walker and Sione Takitaki. The run defense in general has been much better than a season ago, allowing the fifth-lowest yards per game (71.8) on the ground at a league-low 3.2 yards per carry.
But both will be targeted by Shanahan in the passing game. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah has become the best of the Cleveland unit in coverage and the former 2nd round pick has developed into an underrated defender. Even still, he’s allowed eight catches on nine targets this year and will have his hands full with the San Francisco tight ends and running backs.
Delpit, who we mentioned earlier, has been utilized by Schwartz all over the field, from d-line, to slot, to deep safety. Also patrolling the backend will be Juan Thornhill, who came over from the Chiefs this off-season. Although he hasn’t had the same impact as Delpit, he is a rangy single high player that allows for some flexibility in defensive alignments.
SF O LINE vs. CLE D LINE
It feels like at some point I will have to give the advantage to the 49ers offensive line as they’ve been a large part of the historic start. But for the third time in six games, San Francisco has to prepare for a top five edge rusher in the league.
They showed they could handle that pressure last week by holding Micah Parsons in check. It will be incredibly impressive if they can repeat that success against Myles Garrett. Garrett is only behind Nick Bosa in overall defensive PFF grade amongst Edge players.
Top 10 edge rushers in pass-rush win rate this season.— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) October 11, 2023
Only 10 guys over 20% pic.twitter.com/8eD3LW7yrb
First PRWR chart of the year!— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) October 6, 2023
Double team rate at edge (x) by pass rush win rate at edge (y).
(ESPN / NFL Next Gen Stats) pic.twitter.com/ylW8xpPtSw
Part of the reason Cleveland’s defense has been so good in their first four contests is that they have built up the talent around Garrett. Za’Darius Smith is still an impactful player on the opposite edge, and Ogbo Okoronkwo is a solid rotational piece.
Perhaps the best offseason acquisition for the Browns defense was DL Dalvin Tomlinson, who has been a solid run stuffer for his entire career. Cleveland will rotate interior defenders next to Tomlinson, fairly equally amongst veteran Shelby Harris, Jordan Elliott, and former 49er Maurice Hurst. Overall, this front four ranks first in ESPN’s Run Stuff Win Rate and 11th in Pass Rush Win Rate. Safe to say, San Francisco’s going to have their hands full on Sunday.
CLE O LINE vs. SF D LINE
The truth is that on paper, the Cleveland offensive line is one of the best in the NFL. But injuries prevent me from giving them the nod in this matchup, along with San Francisco having one of, if not, the best defensive lines in the NFL.
Right tackle Jack Conklin went on injured reserve after tearing his ACL in the first game of the season. LG Joel Bitonio is listed as questionable with a knee injury of his own. C Ethan Pocic exited their previous game against the Ravens after hurting his knee, leaving his status for Sunday up in the air.
Even with the loss of Conklin for good, rookie Dawand Jones has served admirably in his absence and the Browns offensive line has performed to, or above, expectations. Jones and left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. are top 15 in OT Pass Block Win Rates, as are the starting guard duo of Bitonio and RG Wyatt Teller (amongst IOL Pass Block Win Rates).
The rushing attack, even without star RB Nick Chubb, has been productive, averaging 146.0 yards per game. If there was one team that matches up well in the trenches, on both sides of the football, with San Francisco, it is this one. Just so happens that they are banged up, and it could make all the difference in outcome.
CLE O COMBO vs. SF 2ND LEVEL DEFENDERS
As mentioned, Nick Chubb is out for the season after the gruesome knee injury in the prime time game against Pittsburgh. Cleveland has turned to second-year back Jerome Ford, who hasn’t made much of an impact outside of the outing Chubb went down. Ford had 106 yards against the Steelers but in the two games since has been held to 44 yards on the ground at a discouraging 2.3 yards per carry. Cleveland signed a familiar face, Kareem Hunt, to help carry the load, but he has been slow getting out of the gate.
The Browns use 12 personnel less than any other team except for Miami. When a tight end is on the field it will likely be David Njoku, a former first round pick that has a ton of physical tools but hasn’t quite played up to the draft slot.
Njoku has rarely been used as a big play option for this passing offense, and isn’t much of a threat to the middle of the 49ers defense. I do have great respect for Njoku’s toughness, as last week he played through a scary injury, suffering significant facial burns in a fire pit accident at his home.
CLE O SKILL vs. SF SECONDARY
Deshaun Watson will not suit up for this contest and even with Watson in the lineup, this Browns passing attack has been worse than pedestrian. They’ve averaged 172.5 yards per game through the air, third-least amount in the league. Against Baltimore, Cleveland sent out 5th round rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson (UCLA) who managed an abysmal 3.4 yards per attempt and a QBR of 19.8. Against San Francisco, reports are that the Browns intend to start P.J. Walker, a former XFL quarterback that was cut by the Bears at the end of training camp and has five career passing touchdowns and 11 career interceptions. It might be a rough day to be a Browns fan.
Positive note for Cleveland? Wide receiver Amari Cooper has been a bright spot in a lackluster start to the season. The former Raider and Cowboy has been a steady safety net for whoever is playing quarterback and has continued his consistent play style into his ninth NFL season.
Unfortunately, the poor throwing performances have left much to be desired for everyone in Cleveland. There hasn’t been an impact from the rest of the guys lining up out wide with Cooper. They have been hoping that the breakout game is coming for someone like Elijah Moore, Donovan Peoples-Jones, or rookie Cedric Tillman. But they will have to wait another week. San Francisco has the second-highest coverage team grade according to PFF, only behind Baltimore. Advantage, once again, Niners.