JD Bagley, @jdbagley5
Just when everyone thought about jumping off the Browns hype train, Baker Mayfield and the rest of the crew cashed in their best performance of the year on their way to the top of the AFC North. Cleveland will travel to the west coast for the first time this season where they will take on the undefeated San Francisco 49ers. Since becoming the Niners starting quarterback late in 2017, when healthy, Jimmy Garoppolo elevates the play of the team around him posting a 9-2 record and an unbeaten 4-0 at home. San Francisco is 3-10 without him during that span. Cleveland’s 2nd Monday night and 3rd primetime game overall to begin the season will have them in the spotlight once again. Can the Browns fly cross country and pull off their second straight road upset?
Last week in Baltimore the Browns offense totaled 530 yards, showcasing the potential this group has. The centerpiece was Nick Chubb as he ran for 165 yards, opening up the offense for much more variation in Freddie Kitchens play calling. That will all but surely be the planned attack heading into Santa Clara where the 49ers hold a stout defensive line featuring 5 former 1st round picks. The running game is essential to the Browns offensive approach due to weaknesses in the offensive line. They played their best game of the year last week, but haven’t been tested by the kind of talent the Niners defensive line possesses. If the ground game is nonexistent, this 49ers pass rush will pin their ears back and make life miserable for Mayfield, especially off the edge where Dee Ford and Nick Bosa roam. Baker doesn’t need a ton of time, but what he does need is a clean pocket to step into and deliver balls quickly to his receivers in space. As long as everyone is healthy and on the field, the Browns present a mismatch this week when it comes to Odell Beckham Jr and the receiving core taking on a much weaker 49ers secondary. Troubled wide receiver Antonio Callaway is slated to make his season debut this week as his 4 game suspension comes to an end for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy. Rashard Higgins, who has missed the past 3 weeks nursing a knee injury, practiced for the first time Friday and is listed as questionable for this week. Jarvis Landry, coming off a huge performance in Week 4, left the game in the 2nd half and did not return after he was placed in concussion protocol. He has since been cleared from protocol and is taking part in practice on Friday in hopes to be ready for Monday night. Similar to last week, if Beckham is being shut down by Richard Sherman or a combination of secondary members, Mayfield can look elsewhere and have trust in his other playmakers to get the job done just as they did in Baltimore. A heavy dose of Nick Chubb and getting the ball out quickly to playmakers in space is this offense’s recipe for success. With David Njoku out, the Browns have been using 3 tight ends interchangeably with all 3 seeing over a 30% snap share this past week. An adjustment from Week 3 where Demetrius Harris dominated snaps vs the Rams. Harris and Pharaoh Brown have been on the field more often in rushing situations, while Ricky Seals-Jones has been used more on passing downs.
Give credit where it’s due to the 49ers on their 3-0 start, but looking only at wins and losses can be misleading. Their opponents through the season’s first 4 weeks are a combined 3-9 and that record could be worse had the Bengals and Steelers not played each other last week. Outside of a few too many turnovers, San Francisco has played impressive ball this season and they will be ready to go Monday night coming off a bye. In what Niners fans hope is his first full season in the Bay Area, Jimmy Garoppolo is completing 69% of his passes for 739 yards and a 5:4 TD:INT ratio. Even with former All-Pro tackle Joe Staley out for multiple weeks with a fractured fibula, the offensive line has held up well for Garoppolo only giving up 2 sacks on the season. They will have their hands full this week with Myles Garrett and the rest of Cleveland’s front 4 looking to add to their 14 sacks, good for 4th in the NFL. As mentioned earlier, the 49ers are a much more competitive team with Jimmy Garoppolo under center. Since he took over as the starter, the 49ers are averaging over 30 PPG at home. Although it’s just a 4 game sample size, that number is not something to overlook. San Francisco’s biggest offensive threat is 3rd year tight end George Kittle, who racked up 1,377 receiving yards last year to set the NFL record for most yards by a tight end in a single season. Kittle will be a mismatch against any Browns defender, meaning Steve Wilks may need to bring extra help over the top wherever he lines up. Cleveland’s secondary has been without at least 75% of their starting lineup the past 2 weeks, but it hasn’t been much of a problem with Terrance Mitchell and T.J. Carrie filling in better than anyone had expected. The two may not be as lockdown in man to man coverage as Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams, but they play within their strengths and have been above average run defenders, something Ward and Williams need to improve. Both starting corners still have not seen the practice field this week making it highly unlikely either plays for the 3rd straight week. Veterans Mitchell and Carrie will match up against a young group of 49ers wide receivers still looking to find their place in the NFL.
After finally hitting their stride last week, the Cleveland Browns are back in playoff contention talks among those who counted them out following a rough start to the season. The upcoming stretch of games will be the toughest of the year and starting out with a win in San Francisco is key to the direction this team will be headed over the course of the next few weeks. Browns fans should expect a similar approach offensively from Freddie Kitchens as he is in the process of working out the kinks that do still exist even after a 530 yard, 40 point explosion in Baltimore. Another highly anticipated prime time matchup is in line to wrap up Week 5 on Monday night, can Cleveland repeat last weeks success?