Cleveland was playing its third quarterback of the young season, and PJ Walker played as such, held to under 200 passing yards with a pair of interceptions. The 49ers offense wasn’t much better and would only score seven second-half points with six of its final seven drives lasting three plays or fewer.
The 49ers were in a position to win, however, and that’s where we start our winners and losers from San Francisco’s first loss of 2023:
Loser: Jake Moody
No excuse can be made. Moody’s right foot lost the game.
The big miss came late in the game, but the first-quarter miss shouldn’t be forgotten. The 49ers offense didn’t help Moody much, with a four-play drive that lost ten yards after a Fred Warner interception and 32-yard return, setting up a 54-yard field goal attempt. Moody pulled it left for the first miss of his career and set up Cleveland's’ offense at its 36-yard-line.
His first miss could have been with a make at the end of the game and a chance to wipe everything that went wrong for San Francisco, but Moody pushed the ball right, and the 49ers suffered their first loss of 2023.
There were no real shenanigans to the kick. The ball was centered between the hashmarks, the snap and hold were clean, and Moody missed the 41-yard attempt. What should be ideal conditions for the 99th pick in the 2023 draft proved too much, and the 49ers dropped its first game of the season because of it.
Loser: Brock Purdy
Purdy was not good on Sunday, not by the eye test or statistically.
In the worst game of his young career, Purdy finished 12-for-27 - 44.4 percent - for 125 yards with a touchdown and the first interception of his season. The game started fine enough, with Purdy hitting Christian McCaffrey with a shovel pass to finish the 49ers’ opening drive, aided by Cleveland penalties with a touchdown and an early 7-0 lead.
It was downhill from there, with the offense starting its drive at the Cleveland 26-yard line following a Fred Warner interception. The drive went:
- 8-yard loss on a screen pass
- False start
- Incomplete pass
- 3-yard gain
- Missed field goal
The 49ers offense would only have two drives the rest of the game to get past the 26-yard line, combing for three points. Following Moody’s lone make of the game, the 49ers final nine drives went:
- End of half
- Touchdown (one-play, eight-yard drive set up by a Deommodore Lenoir interception)
- Missed field goal
Purdy even had a few passes that were overthrown or should have been intercepted. No miss bigger than the second-quarter miss on a deep shot to Christian McCaffrey. He had some bad breaks, too - three sacks and a pair of Aiyuk drops - and credit where it’s due, he got the offense in a position to win the game, but it’s tough not to feel like a slightly better performance from the quarterback could have been the difference between a win and a loss.
Winner: all the intrusive thoughts
Everything that could have gone wrong for the 49ers went wrong.
The offense couldn’t keep up much momentum, the defense couldn’t quite come up with the big stop, and the injury bug reared its ugly head again. It started with Trent Williams getting rolled up by a Cleveland defender, forcing him to exit for a few plays. While he did return, Williams reportedly left the stadium after the game wearing a walking boot on his right foot.
The injuries didn’t stop, with Deebo Samuel and Christian McCaffrey forced to the locker room later in the game. Samuel was injured with what was reported as a shoulder injury, with McCaffrey dealing with an oblique injury. McCaffrey attempted to return but left after one play.
Everything went against the 49ers on Sunday. It was a Murphy’s Law loss in Cleveland.
Winner: Cleveland’s defense
Jim Schwartz and the Browns’ defense deserve all the flowers for bottling up the 49ers high-powered offense as it did.
Yes, there were the injuries, but the number of weapons the 49ers still had with Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle should have been enough. The 17 points from the 49ers is the season-low and was the first game of the season San Francisco fell short of the 30-point plateau.
Sunday marked the ninth time a Kyle Shanahan offense was held to fewer than 20 points against a Schwartz defense in ten games. Ownage is ownage, and the 49ers’ inability to score and move the ball is why Cleveland won the game.
Loser: the refs
There were plenty of reasons the 49ers lost on Sunday before the referees could be brought up, but they certainly didn’t help San Francisco’s cause. Both teams were called for a combined 25 penalties for 224 yards, but two standout calls went against the 49ers.
The first came near the end of the first half, deep in Cleveland territory. While several 49ers defenders closed in to sack PJ Walker, the Browns quarterback gave the ball the slightest underhand toss. It was never intended to be a throw and was more of a lazy excuse to have the arm move forward.
While the 49ers had an evident recovery of the fumble, the play was ruled incomplete. After a replay review, the call on the field stood. Instead of the 49ers’ ball inside the Cleveland 25, Walker was given the less severe penalty of intentional grounding, potentially wiping at minimum three points off the board for the 49ers.
Later in the game, with Cleveland driving to take a late lead, Walker targeted Amari Cooper on a third-and-10, but the ball fell incomplete thanks to a Tashaun Gipson big hit. Had it been 2008, ESPN would have shown the highlight on Monday night, screaming about how Cooper got jacked up, but since it’s 2023, the big hit resulted in a flag, extending the Cleveland game-winning drive.
There was no helmet-to-helmet contact, no hit to Cooper’s head, just a good old-fashioned hit from Gipson. Unfortunately, we don’t have the technology to watch a slowed-down replay of the play to ensure the play was called correctly.
A Moody field goal at the end wipes all of this out, so I don’t want to put too much on the referees, but the game’s story can’t be told without them.
Loser: “You can’t beat the 49ers with field goals”
Cleveland did just that on Sunday. The 49ers defense did its job. 19 points is a number that the 49ers offense has beaten easily throughout the season, but it was enough In Cleveland on Sunday.
Dustin Hopkins made four of his five attempts, totaling 13 of Cleveland’s 19 points. All but his game-winner were from 40 yards or out, making from 42, 46, 50, and 26, with his lone miss coming from 47. All four of his makes came in the second half, with his first tying the game at ten and his last giving Cleveland its 19-17 win.
Hopkins alone outscored the entirety of the 49ers offense from the start of the second quarter on, 12-10. In a game where the 49ers lost primarily because of its kicker, Cleveland’s kicker beat the 49ers.