NFL Preview: San Francisco 49ers vs. Cleveland Browns

| by Alex Groberman

The San Francisco 49ers and Cleveland Browns have been doing something very strange over the course of the 2011 season – winning.

As it stands, the 49ers are 5-1 and look primed to put their advantage in the NFC West far out of reach of all opposition over the course of the next 10 games. They’re rocking on all cylinders, with the offense and defense seemingly completely in tune with what needs to be done, and head coach Jim Harbaugh’s message still resonating with a locker room that has been eager to rally around him from the very beginning.

The Browns, meanwhile, aren’t doing too shabby either. Although their 3-3 mark doesn’t jump off the page the way a 5-1 record would, it’s their best start to a year since 2007 and one that they hope to build on as the season progresses. Truth be told, nobody expected Cleveland to be .500 at any point in the year this season, much less six games in.

One of the most surprising things about San Francisco’s success so far has been the way Harbaugh has seemingly rejuvenated 27-year-old quarterback, Alex Smith. The much-maligned Smith has frequently been used as a punching bag by all because of his unfortunate draft position and career-long ineffectiveness. This year, though, he appears to have blocked out all the noise and really bought into what the head coach is preaching. The end result? He’s completed 100 out of 158 passes for the year – good for eight scores and 1,090 yards.

Unfortunately for Smith, the Browns defense has actually been somewhat productive this year. Helped along by stats boosted against some awful competition, the Cleveland defense currently ranks No. 2 in the NFL in yards allowed per game with 172 (Pittsburgh Steelers rank No. 1 with 171.9).  Does that mean that this bunch will actually be able to stop a 49ers offense that will likely get Braylon Edwards back? An offense featuring Michael Crabtree, who is coming off a nine-reception, 77-reception yard game versus the Detroit Lions?


As has been the case all season long, the San Francisco defense will likely make things very difficult for a Browns offense that isn’t particularly good at anything beyond holding onto the ball for a long time.

Sure running back Montario Hardesty was able to put up 95 yards last Sunday, but it came on 33 carries (2.9 yards per carry) and against the atrocious Seattle Seahawks defense. When you figure in the fact that the 49ers haven’t allowed a single rushing touchdown this season, couple it with no running back reaching the 100-yard plateau against them in 28 outings, and combine all of that with them only giving up 75 yards per game to opposing running backs – it doesn’t spell good news for the Browns.

Cleveland quarterback Colt McCoy shouldn’t pose much of a threat either, coming off a showing where he put up no touchdowns, an interception and only 178 yards on 35 pass attempts. And again, that was against the Seahawks defense. For comparison’s sake, San Francisco went into their week off having forced 14 turnovers on the year – good for best in the league through six weeks of play.

All in all, this is a game that the 49ers should be able to win and probably would have if they didn’t have their momentum halted by a week off. Now, with their opponents sufficiently cooled down, the Browns have a very legitimate shot at victory.

The 49ers and Browns will kick off at 4:15 p.m. on Sunday.