5 reasons 49ers should shine in primetime
SANTA CLARA - Losing to the Browns would hurt.
Sure, losing wouldn’t crush the 49ers. They still would be 3-1, which is an excellent start to the season.
But, losing at home on national television to the 2-2 Browns, who haven’t had a winning season since 2007, could damage the 49ers psychologically. The 49ers haven’t been good for a while, either. Maybe they’re not so hot if they can’t beat Cleveland. Doubt could creep into their minds.
The 49ers need to win this game. And they absolutely should win it. Here are five reasons why:
1. The 49ers are coming off a bye week and the Browns aren’t.
Meaning the 49ers have had seven extra days to game plan and prepare. Head coach Kyle Shanahan and Robert Saleh should have sophisticated game plans, and the players should feel rested and energized.
Only two things could work against the 49ers coming off a bye week: The coaches could make the game plan too sophisticated, and dive too deep into new ideas, because they’ve had an extra week to brainstorm. Or, the players could be rusty and out of practice.
The latter happened to the 49ers last season after their bye week. They flew to Tampa, came out flat, and the Bucs cleaned their clocks 27-9. To prevent a similar sluggish performance this season, Shanahan made his players practice five times this week, from Monday to Friday.
“They weren’t hard practices or anything,” Shanahan said. “Just throwing the ball, coming out of the huddle, things like that. Usually it takes a couple practices to get them going again (after a bye week).”
Sounds like Shanahan has his team prepared for the big game.
2. The 49ers have a good run game and the Browns don’t defend the run well.
The 49ers are a run-first team.
That’s their identity on offense. This season, they’re averaging a whopping 38 rushing attempts per game - tops in the NFL. Opposing defenses know the 49ers want to run the ball, sell out to stop them from running and still can’t stop them. The 49ers are averaging 4.6 yards per carry - tied for 11th best in the league.
“(Shanahan) does a good job of creating misdirections and testing your eyes,” Browns head coach Freddie Kitchens said on a conference call with Bay Area reporters. “He’s always been able to run the ball real well in his system, and that’s some of the reasons. They make sure you’re sound with your eyes and your reads and your keys and your gap integrity.”
Unfortunately for the Browns, they’re not sound with any of those things. They’re undisciplined, particularly linebacker Mack Wilson, a rookie fifth-round pick who frequently runs himself out of position.
The Browns defense has allowed 4.6 yards per carry. Not good. The 49ers should run for more than 150 yards.
3. The Browns banged-up secondary negates their phenomenal pass rush.
The Browns have defensive end Myles Garrett, the first pick of the 2017 draft, and one of the best pass rushers in the NFL. He’ll face Justin Skule, a rookie sixth-round pick.
The Browns also have defensive end Olivier Vernon, who will earn $15.5 million this year. He’s good, too. Under normal circumstances, he and Garrett would wreck the 49ers’ passing game and rough up Jimmy Garoppolo.
But, the Browns could be without three quarters of their starting secondary. Cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams both missed the Browns’ last game with hamstring injuries, and strong safety Morgan Burnett missed the Browns’ past two games with a quadriceps injury. The Browns listed all three as “questionable.”
Even if one or two play Monday night, they probably won’t be 100% healthy. Garoppolo should be able to find open receivers quickly and release the ball before the Browns pass rush clobbers him.
4. The Browns offensive line can’t block the 49ers defensive line.
If you think the 49ers are vulnerable along their offensive line, wait until you see the Browns.
They have given up 12 sacks - three per game. Their offensive linemen lack talent. And their quarterback, Baker Mayfield, lacks confidence in them and maybe himself, too. He senses pressure when it isn’t there and scrambles out of the pocket when he doesn’t have to.
And he hasn’t faced the 49ers yet.
“They’re the best front we’ve faced this year,” Kitchens said. “They play hard. They’re very talented, very long, big guys that play with quickness. And they’re very deep. They can rotate guys in and out.”
Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner all should have terrific games.
Mayfield probably has planned his exit routes from the pocket already.
5. Freddie Kitchens versus Robert Saleh.
This is the biggest mismatch of the game.
Saleh is one of the best defensive coordinators in the NFL. He has had 15 days to study Kitchens, who runs one of the league’s simplest, underwhelming offenses.
“I’d give them a run-first mentality,” Saleh explained. “They’ve got a really good run game, and they run some RPOs, which is an easy way to get the ball to the receivers. It’s pitch and catch.”
That’s the Browns entire offense, more or less. They hand the ball off to running back Nick Chubb, or they fake the handoff and throw extremely quick, extremely short passes to wide receivers (plays which are called RPOs - run-pass options).
The Browns have one of the best wide receivers in the NFL - Odell Beckham Jr. And he will face a backup cornerback making his first career start - Emmanuel Moseley. Beckham should have a monster game.
But, Kitchens can’t get the ball to Beckham down the field. Not consistently. Through three games, Beckham has caught just five of 14 passes that traveled more than 20 yards past the line of scrimmage. The Browns have a conservative, horizontal passing game, which Saleh should eat alive.
“We feel pretty good about the way it will all work,” Saleh said.
Prediction: 49ers 23, Browns 17.