Its defense has been so good this season, ranking in the top five in the majority of defensive stats that’s held half of its opponents to just three points this season. The 49ers have scored 30 or more points in all five games this year, while it took Cleveland’s defense until the 10th quarter of the season to allow its 30th point.
On the other side of the ball, Cleveland’s offense will be without the quarterback it sold its soul for but, instead, its third starting quarterback of the season. That instantly favors a 49ers defense that likely wouldn’t have had many issues, even with Deshaun Watson playing.
As good ole’ Jim Ross would say, this one will be a slobber knocker - at least on one side of the ball. Here are the three numbers to know as the 49ers aim for 6-0:
First downs per game. The Browns’ defense has allowed 9.25 first downs per game, the best in the league.
And it’s not even close.
Like, remotely close.
The 49ers elite defense has allowed the fourth-fewest first downs in the league at 16.8. New Orleans is second at 16 per game. That’s a difference of 6.75.
The difference between the leading Browns and the second-place Saints is the same that separates New Orleans from the Colts, who have allowed the 28th-fewest first downs - or fifth-most.
It’s just one of the many categories the Browns defense leads the league in - yards allowed per game, yards allowed per play, and points allowed per drive, to name a few - and they all point to one thing: it’s hard to move the ball against the Cleveland Browns.
The numbers are almost Madden-esque: it hasn’t allowed more than 300 total yards in a game this season, it held the Titans to 94 total yards in Week 3, and it has two games where it held its opponents to under 70 passing yards (Weeks 1 and 3).
So far, the 49ers will easily be Cleveland’s biggest defensive test this season. While their Week 1 game against Cincinnati could be comparable, something was off with the Bengals’ offense the first few weeks of the season, and Cincinnati doesn’t have a run game that’s even close to what the 49ers offer.
The San Francisco offense is at the top of the league in many of the stats, and Cleveland’s defense leads in - first downs, yards per game, and yards per play - so it creates an intriguing matchup. There just has to be something Celveland’s defense struggles at…
Turnover percentage. The Browns defense has forced a turnover on 5.9 percent of drives, the 5th-lowest rate in the league.
There it is!
Cleveland forced a pair of turnovers against Pittsburgh - so did the 49ers - and one before their bye week against Baltimore. It’s a tough defense to move the ball against, but it’s not forcing mistakes.
That’s where the 49ers can take advantage of Cleveland. If the offensive line can contain Myles Garrett and Za’Darius Smith - a big ask - the offense shouldn’t be forced into any mistakes like they haven’t been all season.
From there, it comes down to what you believe in. The 49ers offense - with Brock Purdy, Christian McCaffrey, Brandon Aiyuk, George Kittle, and Deebo Samuel - will be able to operate as usual and break the Browns’ defense like it did to Dallas - or - the Browns defense - with Garrett, Smith, Denzel Ward, and Grant Delpit - can establish itself as an elite defense. Both answers are correct.
I’ll leave you with this stat about Browns defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz:
Kyle Shanahan has faced Jim Schwartz 9 times. Shanahan is 1-8 in those matchups and his offense has scored over 20 points just once.— Jack Hammer (@JackHammer_NFL) October 11, 2023
As the Falcons OC in 2016 Shanahan’s offense averaged 33.9 points through the first 9 games.
In game 10 they faced the Eagles with Schwartz as…
Points per game. The Browns’ offense averages 19 points per game, third-fewest in the league.
This is where the 49ers should separate itself from Cleveland. For every challenge the Browns’ defense could give the 49ers’ offense, there are plenty of issues the 49ers defense should give Cleveland plenty of fits.
Deshaun Watson seemed to be turning a corner after throwing for a pair of touchdowns with only five incomplete passes on 33 attempts against Tennessee. Still, he injured his throwing shoulder, keeping him out of the Browns’ Week 4 loss and now keeping him out Sunday. Dorian Thompson-Robinson threw three interceptions in Cleveland’s 28-3 loss to Baltimore.
Enter P.J. Walker.
The XFL’s passing touchdowns' leader in 2020 likely makes his eighth career NFL start Sunday against one of the best defenses in the league. Walker wasn’t great in his 15 games with Carolina, throwing twice as many interceptions as touchdowns. He takes on a 49ers defense that’s allowed 13.6 points per game, the fewest in the league, and has only allowed more than 20 points once this season.
Walker’s career 4.8 interception percentage will try to challenge a 49ers defense with the third-highest interception percentage, picking off four percent of passes against while forcing a turnover on 17.6 percent of drives. And the turnovers are coming from every spot on the field, with the 49ers eight interceptions coming from seven players.
It almost feels like a setup, but there shouldn’t be any issues for the 49ers defense in Cleveland. They might even be able to contribute a couple of their own scores.