Last season, the hype train made its way into Santa Clara, as expectations for the 49ers were just a year premature.
Fast forward to the 2019 season, and that same hype train has made it’s way to Cleveland. Both the Browns and the 49ers have had an abysmal few years, that is until now. Under the lights for the first time this season, the 49ers will welcome the Browns to Levi’s Stadium Monday night for a primetime matchup featuring two division-leading teams.
Baker Mayfield, Odell Beckham Jr. and the Browns high-powered offense enter the Monday night matchup coming off a statement win over the division-rival Baltimore Ravens, in which running back Nick Chubb ran for 165 yards and three touchdowns. Riddled with offensive weapons, 49ers Head Coach Kyle Shanahan called the Cleveland offense “a challenge”:
“They’ve got a lot of good players. They’ve got a good scheme. They mix it up a ton with a lot of the stuff they do. With all the RPOs and things like that, they’ve got a lot of receivers and backs who you get the ball in their hands and they can take it the distance.”
The Browns are not the only team with dynamic play-makers and an offensive system that utilizes everybody on the field. The 49ers, under Shanahan, spread the ball around maybe more than anybody in the league. This matchup has the makings of a great prime-time battle and features two of the more balanced teams in the league.
Garoppolo and Mayfield
Mayfield, the 2018 number one overall pick, is coming off a season in which he silenced the critics and led the Browns back to relevancy, finishing as a Rookie of the Year finalist. It’s been a slow start for Baker thus far in 2019, which, you could argue, is the case for Jimmy Garoppolo as well.
49ers Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh gave his thoughts on Mayfield Friday afternoon:
“Baker, you could see that he’s getting into a groove, especially if he can get into a groove early. He’s got really good arm strength, he’s got great pocket awareness. He’s always looking downfield to find open guys. He’s not just scrambling to run, he’s scrambling to throw. He’s starting to get a rapport with his receivers, understanding the offense and what it’s asking of him and he’s going to be a good one. For him, it’s just stay the course and get better every single day.”
Interceptions have been an issue for both quarterbacks throughout the first quarter of the season. They will look to change that Monday night. The two quarterbacks are similar in the sense that they can make tough throws, take command of a huddle, and are aggressive (sometimes to a fault).
Mayfield, the loud, out-spoken, under-sized, Heisman Trophy winner out of Oklahoma is no stranger to primetime games throughout his 18-game NFL career. Playing in multiple games under the lights, that’s an advantage he has on Garoppolo, who will be playing in the first primetime game of his career.
Garoppolo was asked Thursday about his upcoming primetime debut:
“It’ll be exciting, a lot of juice. Levi’s was rocking last time when the Steelers came and wouldn’t expect anything less from the Faithful. It’ll be a fun atmosphere, that’s for sure.”
With the way the 49ers have played, and how well the offense has run with Garoppolo under center, it’s hard not to give the 49ers the advantage at the quarterback position. Not only that, but the Browns offense, (with the potential it has) has not been consistent so far this season.
Quarterback advantage: 49ers
Both the Browns and 49ers have such unique and exciting offenses. The Browns, with Beckham Jr., Chubb, and Jarvis Landry, pose a threat all over the field. The 49ers, who will counter with George Kittle, Matt Breida, Deebo Samuel, Dante Pettis, and Raheem Mostert attack teams with their abundance of speed and athleticism, despite the lack of household names.
All three of Cleveland’s go-to guys are capable of putting up 1,000-plus yard seasons each. Having two explosive, dynamic wide receivers to pair with a true bell-cow running back allows the Browns to attack opposing defenses from all angles. The 49ers, on the other hand, have some uncertainty outside of Kittle and Breida. Featuring two very young receivers, Pettis and Samuel, the 49ers passing game has relied on mostly Kittle and the abundance of pass-catching running backs.
Browns wide receivers through four games: 49 receptions on 86 targets (63% target share) for 785 yards for only one touchdown.
49ers wide receivers through three games: 29 receptions on 43 targets (51% target share) for 402 yards and four touchdowns.
The running back position is where things get interesting. The Browns invested a second-round pick in Chubb back in 2018, and it has paid off. Chubb had a great season last year and is on track for another great season in 2019.
The difference between the Browns and 49ers systems is that the 49ers have gotten more production from less investment. Breida, Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr. were each undrafted coming out of college, a testament to Shanahan’s creative play-calling that allows running backs to thrive.
Browns running backs through four games: 89 rushing attempts for 450 yards (5.05 yards-per-attempt) and six rushing touchdowns. Have combined for 22 receptions, 205 yards, and no touchdowns in the passing game.
49ers running backs through three games: 100 rushing attempts for 509 yards (5.09 yards-per-attempt) and four rushing touchdowns. Have combined for 13 receptions, 188 yards, and one touchdown in the passing game.
It is no secret that the Browns have plenty of play-makers that can match up against any top defense. Saleh had this to say about the Browns offense:
“They’re a very talented group. Skill positions are up there with anyone in the league. Their back is fantastic. Baker is getting into a groove. Anytime you’re a new offense going in with a new system, even though the coach is the same from a year ago, there are still nuances that are different. And so, as an offense, as you’re trying to gain control of it, they’re just going to get better. They are so talented especially at those skill spots, their O-Line is very good. It’s just a matter of time before they start clicking and they did against Baltimore.”
The comparison at tight end is really no comparison at all. Kittle is arguably the best tight end in football after breaking the all-time receiving yard record by a tight end in 2018. The Browns will counter with a tight end-by-committee that consists of David Njoku, Ricky Seals-Jones and Demetrius Harris.
Offensive weapons advantage: Browns
A tale of two defenses
The backbone of the 49ers through three games has been the much-improved defense. From the defensive line to the linebackers, even the defensive backs, the 49ers have straight-up dominated on defense so far this season. The Browns have done pretty well defensively thus far, not as well as the 49ers, but overall a middle-of-the-pack team on defense (statistically speaking).
Browns defensive ranks through four games: 22.8 PPG (14th), 335.0 YPG (11th), 10 touchdowns allowed (T-14th), seven takeaways (T-4th), 14 sacks (T-4th)
49ers defensive ranks through three games: 18 PPG (8th), 283.3 YPG (3rd), six touchdowns allowed (4th), seven takeaways (T-4th), nine sacks (T-8th)
Both the 49ers and Browns feature premiere pass-rushing attacks. The Browns defensive line consists of Myles Garrett, Sheldon Richardson and Olivier Vernon, three forces that will be looking to feast against the 49ers offensive line, especially rookie left tackle Justin Skule. Making his second career start, Skule is tasked with facing one of the nastiest edge rushers in the NFL in Garrett.
Skule discussed facing Garrett on Thursday:
“I mean he’s a great player, he’s a great pass-rusher, he’s a strong guy, he plays hard. He’s definitely a guy you’ve seen have success in this league, but each week you have to go against the top guy, so you have to prepare the same each week.”
But, he added:
“I don’t think you want to psych yourself out, and that’s something Mike McGlinchey said to me. He said ‘you can’t worry about the name on the back of the jersey, every player is a good player in this league, so you can’t psych yourself out for who you’re going against.'”
The 49ers will counter with a defensive front that rivals any in the league. So far the combinations of DeForest Buckner, Dee Ford, Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, D.J. Jones, and Ronald Blair have proven to be the forces they were advertised as being, and that’s without a fully-healthy Bosa and Ford.
Aside from the two disruptive defensive lines, both teams feature young defensive backfields. The Browns have invested first and second-round picks in DB’s the past two seasons, as Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams will pose as tough matchups for 49ers receivers Monday night.
Moseley was asked about the tough matchup, and if he plans on seeing a lot of Beckham Jr.:
“I’m not really sure if I’m going to see him or not, I treat every receiver the same, I’ve gotta prepare and watch film on them. … I watch film on the Browns as a whole group. They’ve got a good receiving core.”
The 49ers have the edge up-front, while the Browns may have the edge in the defensive backfield. One area that is not close, is the linebacking core. Both Fred Warner and Kwon Alexander have been phenomenal so far, and provide the 49ers with an athletic duo that has a nose for the ball every week. The Browns have some talent at linebacker but have been inconsistent at the position so far. It remains unclear what we can expect out of Mack Wilson, Joe Schobert, and Adarius Taylor Monday night.
Defense advantage: 49ers
On paper, the Browns have the more premiere names on offense, while the 49ers have the edge on defense. What’s expected to be a close game should have the makings for a solid Monday Night Football game. If the 49ers can continue to play lock-down defense, get to Baker Mayfield, and keep their offense rolling, they should come away with a win Monday night, and improve to 4-0 on the season.
With Jason Verrett and Jalen Hurdheading to IR, the 49ers did get healthier at one position. Running back Tevin Coleman, who has been sidelined since week one with an ankle injury, returned to practice this week, and has a chance to play Monday night. … Defensive end Dee Ford did not practice Thursday or Friday this week. Kyle Shanahan hopes to get him back out on the field for Saturday’s practice.