Chris Pokorny of Dawgs by Nature took the time to answer five questions surrounding this weekend’s upcoming matchup between the 49ers and the Browns in what figures to be a defensive battle. Let’s get right into it.
1. Cleveland’s defense has been historically good through 4 games. What has been the key to their dominant performances and how has new DC Jim Schwartz put their players in advantageous positions?
There were some lapses in the second quarter against the Baltimore Ravens that contributed to the team’s loss, but besides that, the defense has played very fast with sure tackling and tight coverage.
The formula has been that the pass rushing threat is there, so quarterbacks get rid of the ball quick, and our linebackers, safeties, and cornerbacks have been able to go on their first instinct and lay big hits on whoever the ball is being thrown to — or even if it’s not a big hit, it has led to a sure-tackle. The run defense was also playing at a high level. Even with three weeks of complete dominance, though, you start to second guess yourself when you see a team like the Ravens be able to take advantage of things with Lamar Jackson.
Jackson forced our defenders to be flat-footed and not go on their first instinct, and it led to Baltimore gashing the team on the ground and missing tackles. They are a confident group, so I think they will rebound, and they seem to thrive on Jim Schwartz allowing them to play fast-and-free.
2. It seemed like everyone expected Deshaun Watson to be ready to go for this game after having a bye week to rest, but his availability may be in doubt with the shoulder injury. It sounds like there are some injuries up front on the offensive line as well. What can we expect from the Browns passing attack if Watson cannot start this matchup?
I’m answering this question a day after you asked it, but on Thursday evening, it was reported that Deshaun Watson is now out for Sunday’s game against the 49ers, and P.J. Walker is likely to get the start.
What can we expect from the Browns’ passing attack without Watson? If it was Jacoby Brissett (with the team in 2022) or Josh Dobbs (traded to the Cardinals before Week 1), I could give you a fair answer. Cleveland traded Dobbs at the end of the preseason because their 5th round pick, Dorian Thompson-Robinson, had played so well in the preseason. They gave him a raw deal prior to Week 4 because he didn’t know he was going to start until 2.5 hours before the game, and head coach Kevin Stefanski did not adjust the gameplan at all.
The gameplan was for a downfield passing game, and that is not DTR’s strengths. Because he played so poorly in that scenario, the Browns are now starting P.J. Walker, who was signed to the practice squad earlier this season.
I know Walker played some games in Carolina for three years, but I didn’t have a chance to watch him much. My impression is that he is not a running quarterback, and isn’t a prolific passer. I’m expecting him to play a game manager role with safer passes, and letting this be the Browns’ defense game to try to win.
At left guard, Joel Bitonio is as good as they get and hasn’t missed a snap from 2017 onward. He hasn’t practiced this week with a knee injury that he apparently suffered some time during the past week or so, and it doesn’t sound optimistic that he’ll play. That is certainly less-than-ideal, when you couple it with the quarterback situation.
3. Speaking of Watson, he hasn’t yet performed at the level he displayed while in Houston. What is the general consensus among Cleveland fans about his play through 9 regular season games as the Browns quarterback?
I have not been impressed, although I always thought he was overrated from his days with the Texans. On the same note, we also saw how incompetent the offense was without him against Baltimore.
I don’t doubt that Watson has some tools to be a good or above average quarterback, but it’s frustrating to have waited through the 2022 season, and now part of the 2023 season, to try getting him comfortable again, knowing how many assets the team gave up for him.
The fan base is split where some fans are preaching to be patient and optimistic, because “once it clicks, it’ll be awesome,” while the other half is just sick of the whole quarterback situation. I am usually Mr. Optimistic myself, but the whole acquisition and past two years of Watson have me more toward the pessimistic side of things.
4. What do you see from this specific matchup that gives you optimism about Cleveland’s chances of stopping the 49ers offense?
It is not going to be the Browns’ offense, so I have to turn to the defense. You said it yourself about how the Browns’ defense was off to a historic start. In those first three games, the defense was unlike anything I’ve ever seen in all my years of watching football. It looked like a defense that could lead a team to a Super Bowl, even with an inept offense.
That backfired against Baltimore with turnovers on offense and then the defense having one bad quarter, but all of those guys are still healthy and know that this game can only be won if they deliver. There is a chance for rain on Sunday too, and that was the case in Week 1 against the Bengals — neither offense could do anything with the wet ball, but Cleveland’s defense eventually had the ultimate upper hand. That is the path for a Cleveland victory on Sunday.
5. San Francisco has won by an average of ~20 points per game during their 5-0 start. They are 5.5-point favorites on the road as things stand. Do you think Cleveland can cover and make it a close contest, and what would they need to do in order to get the win outright?
Kyle’s note: The spread has jumped to 10 points on DraftKings Sportsbook since Watson was announced out
The spread has bounced between 5.5 and 7 points, but I can’t expect them to come out on top. Even if the Browns’ defense plays pretty dominant, I think the offense will be such a liability with P.J. Walker at quarterback, a banged up offensive line, and a running game that can’t get going without Nick Chubb. The optimistic scenario that I described above has weather playing a factor and the defense being dominant, but that won’t lead to a victory more times than not. I think the 49ers can cover the spread in this one.