This week, the Cleveland Browns (2-10) take on the San Francisco 49ers (4-8) in Week 14 of the NFL regular season. Our position-by-position evaluation and game prediction are below.
The 49ers placed Colin Kaepernick on injured reserve in November after he had been trying to play through a shoulder injury he suffered back in Week 4. The quarterback's future with the team is in doubt due to him underacheiving and the massive contract he has, but the word is that he might be open to restructuring his deal to stay with the team. The question is whether Blaine Gabbert's sudden resurgence since replacing him will through a wrench in that plan.
Gabbert is 2-2 as a starter, completing 63% of his passes with 5 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. He's also run for 140 yards in 4 games, including a 44-yard rushing touchdown last week. Gabbert was awful in Jacksonville, but he does seem to have a new confidence with the 49ers, and that confidence could increase when he sees how poorly the Browns' defense plays.
Browns fans should have renewed interest in these final four games now that Johnny Manziel is back under center. His last start -- several weeks ago against the Steelers -- was the best of his career. Can he build off of that, or will the multi-week benching force him to start slow? The ranking here is even because neither quarterback has a proven body of work.
Carlos Hyde is still sidelined with an injury. After the Browns released him, the 49ers signed Shaun Draughn and he has immediately become the team's starting running back. He hasn't blown teams away, averaging 14 carries for 45.5 yards (3.25) in four games. However, he's been used heavily as a receiver. How is this for a baffling stat -- even though he's played just four games, his 22 catches is third on the team for the entire season, and just one behind Torrey Smith for second on the team in receptions. Kendall Gaskins, who joined the team in November, is the team's backup running back but rarely touches the ball.
The Browns haven't been able to run the ball effectively in a long time, to the point where they pretty much don't even bother running the ball at times. The 49ers' run defense is suspect, so part of me wonders if this could finally be the day we see Isaiah Crowell put together an effective day on the ground, with him maybe even reaching the end zone again. Duke Johnson remains the receiving threat, and although I view him as more dynamic than Draughn, Draughn has pretty much done what both Cleveland backs do in his four games.
Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith are the 49ers' starting receivers. Basically, it's a throwback to what we used to see multiple times a year when they were the Ravens' starting receivers. Boldin is still a reliable receiver, with two 100+ yard games this season and two more in which he almost cracked that barrier. He has 49 catches for 595 yards. Torrey Smith is still just a big-play threat -- he has just 23 catches, but nearly matches Boldin's yardage at 529 yards. He has catches of 75, 76, and 71 yards this year. Quinton Patton is the team's third receiver with 20 catches for 250 yards.
The Browns get the advantage because the 49ers are without both of their receiving tight ends, Vance McDonald and Garrett Celek, after both had combined for 40 catches and 5 touchdowns this year. Blake Bell, the team's fourth-round pick, will have a chance to step up.
Cleveland should have Travis Benjamin, Brian Hartline, and Taylor Gabriel available this week as their top three receivers, and Gary Barnidge is the player who gives the Browns the unit advantage over the 49ers. What fans really care about this week is Terrelle Pryor. It's still fun to fantasize about him making a highlight-reel play, but fans will have to be patient -- we'll be lucky if he even gets a snap during meaningful game time.
|OL||The 49ers' starting offensive line features LT Joe Staley, LG Alex Boone, C Marcus Martin, RG Jordan Devey, and RT Erik Pears. San Francisco is solid on the left side with Staley and Boone, but Martin and Devey are big liabilities. The 49ers are 28th in the NFL in sacks allowed per pass play -- in fact, that's a little worse than Cleveland.
Austin Pasztor will get the start at left guard this week for the injured Joel Bitonio and the benched Cameron Erving. If it was me, I would've shifted John Greco over to left guard and given Erving a shot at right guard, the position he most practiced at this year. The coaching staff must feel Erving is that much of a liability to getting the quarterback hurt.
|DL||The 49ers run a 3-4 defense, with Ian Williams as their starting nose tackle. Their other defensive linemen include a mix of Tony Jerod-Eddie, Quinton Dial, Mike Purcell, and Arik Armstead. Armstead, the team's first-round pick, only has one sack but does a pretty good job getting pressure on the quarterback.
Over these last four games, the Browns are in a pickle with how to handle their defensive line situation. Danny Shelton still hasn't jumped off the page, even against some backup centers. John Hughes, who was re-signed to be a good run defender, has fallen completely flat. Xavier Cooper has been utilized the wrong way in my opinion -- his job all season should have been as a sub-package pass rusher.
|LB||If you think the defensive line is a problem for Cleveland, the outside linebacker situation is really a mess. Karlos Dansby isn't a bottom-of-the-barrel player, but he's taken a step back from 2014 and has not been a stout run defender in either season. Chris Kirksey hasn't flashed like some fans thought he might, and Craig Robertson will be a free agent. The outside linebacker situation is still seeing the team get very little out of Nate Orchard, while Barkevious Mingo is stuck in a niche role that I still don't understand (what is his role?). I think Paul Kruger has done a good job turning things up over these past few games, and his game would look a lot better if everyone around him weren't playing so poorly.
The 49ers feature Ahmad Brooks and Aaron Lynch as their starting outside linebackers, with NaVorro Bowman and Michael Wilhoite on the inside. Wilhoite is out with a high ankle sprain, leaving Gerald Hodges responsible for filling in. Rookie Eli Harold is also a sub-package player on the outside. Lynch has 6.5 sacks on the year to lead the team, followed by Brooks at 4. Lynch has also logged 19 hits on the quarterback.
|DB||Maybe the Browns' defensive backs coach should be fired, because their cornerbacks have by far been the most underachieving unit all season. The success rate for opposing teams targeting our cornerbacks deep has to be absurdly high, and I can only imagine how many times Blaine Gabbert will go for Torrey Smith burning a guy like Tramon Williams, Pierre Desir, or Charles Gaines.
The 49ers' secondary consists of Tramaine Brock and Kenneth Acker at cornerback, and Jaquiski Tartt and Eric Reid. Across the board, the secondary is pretty much on par with the Browns' secondary. They won't get beat deep downfield as much and Brock and Acker do each have three interceptions on the year, but they are ranked 27th in the league in passing yards allowed, which is even behind the Browns, believe it or not.
Phil Dawson returns to Cleveland after spending 14 years with the club. He is 18-of-19 on the year, including 3 makes from beyond 50 yards. Travis Coons has two misses on the year, both coming on kicks around 50 yards that were blocked or tipped. It's hard to tell if that's his fault (too low on long kicks) or the protection.
Andy Lee's net average has slipped to around the middle of the NFL, thanks to the Ravens' punt return for a touchdown a couple of weeks ago. He is facing his former team, the 49ers, for the first time in his career. Bradley Pinion, who replaced Lee, is in the bottom third of the league in average and net average.
Bruce Ellington will return kickoffs and punts for the 49ers. Travis Benjamin will continue to return punts for the Browns, with Darius Jennings likely handling kickoffs again.
I thought the 49ers would be the worst team in the NFL heading into the season. Talent-wise, I think they were depleted to the point where they should've been the worst team, so it is a testament to the players and staff that they've been able to squeak out four wins so far.
The Browns were embarrassed last week by the Bengals, but I see things taking a turn this week. The team will be motivated to shake off the embarrassment, and their confidence level will be higher against a team that they mentally believe they have a shot against. Also, with Johnny Manziel back under center and a commitment to a player who delivered in 2015 (Gary Barnidge), that had to brighten the mood a bit in Berea. The 49ers are 1-5 on the road, and Manziel delivered a win (vs. Titans) in the only home start he's made in 2015. The Browns' defensive woes still won't be patched up, but a back-and-forth game will see Cleveland snap their seven-game losing streak.
Cleveland Browns 24, San Francisco 49ers 23
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