The match-up this week seems like a mirror image of what the Oakland Raiders brought to the table against Cleveland two weeks ago, with one big difference: the 49ers are very good at defending the run. Record-wise, this will be the Browns' toughest test this season. Does that mean things will be one-sided? Find out after the jump...
|Alex Smith is on pace to have the best season of his career. His accuracy is up and his interception rate is down, and I never that the former first overall pick would get seven seasons to produce, but it's finally coming together for him. The 49ers offense isn't built to thrive on the passing game though -- Smith averages just 181 yards passing per game. I still have my doubts as to whether he can rally this team once they get behind.
Out of all the games the Browns have played this season, this will be the most important one when it comes to accuracy for Colt McCoy. I'm thinking that he'll need to complete at least 65% of his passes for Cleveland to have a chance. One asset that has been somewhat missing from McCoy's game this year is his willingness to tuck the ball and run. It worked out well against the Seahawks last week, and with the pressure the 49ers bring, McCoy may have some opportunities to pick up a few tough yards himself.
Frank Gore is an absolute beast, and I hope T.J. Ward is prepared to come up and help tackle this guy. Like many running backs though, the big key is to prevent Gore from getting that one big run. The first three weeks of the season, Gore averaged about 2.5 yards per carry with a long run of 16 yards. The past three weeks, Gore is averaging 7.86 yards per carry, with assists from a 55-yard run and a 40-yard run. With how good of a defense the 49ers have, those big runs by Gore are demoralizing. The thing that stuns me about Gore is how few receptions he is getting this year. He averaged 40+ yards receiving last year, but is only averaging 11+ yards receiving this year.
Personal prediction, and you can call this a 'gut feeling' -- I think Peyton Hillis will be active against the 49ers, but either won't play at all or will only see work if an injury takes place. Montario Hardesty and Chris Ogbonnaya will probably have a similar reps-ratio that they did last week. I think it'd be wise of the Browns to throw quick passes to the running backs in the flat. Even if they only lead to 3-4 yard gains, those can act as substitutes from what I project to be a less effective run game.
Braylon Edwards has nothing to do with this ranking. In fact, if he plays (he is a game-time decision), I'd say the 49ers' receiver crew would be taking a hit. Right now, they have several receivers stepping up, and they don't need a guy like Edwards dropping a couple of passes. Vernon Davis could present a few matchup problems if someone like Scott Fujita has to cover him.
Joshua Cribbs will move into the starting lineup again with Mohamed Massaquoi out. Tight end Benjamin Watson should get the start despite suffering a concussion last week. Wide receiver Carlton Mitchell should make his season-debut at receiver, and hopefully that means he'll record his first career reception in a regular season game.
|The Browns will have Shawn Lauvao back at right guard this week, even though I was very interested in seeing John Greco get some action there this week. The 49ers have the advantage here because their line is good in the power run game. If Cleveland gets some key defensive stops on early downs though, I think right tackle Anthony Davis could have some trouble.
|This is going to be a great match-up -- 49ers right defensive end Justin Smith going up against left tackle Joe Thomas. Smith has six sacks this year, and according to the Plain Dealer, he has 32 pressures this season. On top of that, rookie Aldon Smith comes in during passing situations and has added 5.5 sacks this year.
This category could definitely go in favor of the 49ers, but I decided to make it even because of the different schemes played (3-4 vs. 4-3) and the fact that the Browns' front four has not been a liability.
Patrick Willis is one of best linebackers in the NFL, and I don't think anyone will question that. On top of that, second-year man NaVorro Bowman is a solid linebacker playing next to him. This unit isn't built on creating sacks, but they are fierce when it comes to defending the run and making sure running backs don't break any tackles. For the Browns, I liked what I saw last week from Kaluka Maiava, but veteran Scott Fujita will return to the starting lineup.
|We saw the difference Joe Haden made in the starting lineup last week, and if he does end up guarding Braylon Edwards, it'd be nice to see another lockdown performance. It'd also be nice to see Haden shush a few of the 49ers fans who have been questioning his legitimacy. The greater confidence I have in the Browns' secondary stems from some slightly improved play by T.J. Ward, and some great coverage by nickel back Dimitri Patterson. It would be unfair to call the 49ers' secondary "weak" or anything of that nature, but I'd prefer Cleveland's group of players to their group of players.
|It's going to be a Brad Seely reunion, but I don't think he'll have any particular insights as to what the Browns' tendencies are since there are a lot of new players on special teams in Cleveland. As much as I liked Blake Costanzo in Cleveland, he is the enemy now and I'd love to see Joshua Cribbs truck over him. The 49ers have a great unit under Seely though, with Ted Ginn Jr. returning kicks, veteran David Akers kicking field goals, and punter Andy Lee getting impressive distance on his punts.
And this...this is where I sound crazy. Bye week teams are 3-9 this season, and while the 49ers are an efficient offense, they typically aren't a team that is going to jump out to a big lead. I think that plays to the strengths of Cleveland's defense, and I really think Cleveland's offense was a couple of steps away last week from putting a lot more points on the board (more passes to the running backs, among other things). I'll use my "reach" card this week and pick the Browns in a tight one.
CHRIS' OVERALL NFL PREDICTIONS RECORD: 70-33
CHRIS' RECORD AT PICKING BROWNS GAMES: 4-2