In what was expected to be an offensive shootout, the San Francisco 49ers (4-0) swept aside the bargain-basement Browns (2-3) to remain undefeated.
The recurring theme before Monday’s showdown was the legitimacy of the San Francisco 49ers as contenders. A prime-time matchup against a star-studded Cleveland Browns team gave them a chance to make a statement. And a statement they made. On their first offensive play of the game, Matt Breida took an 83-yard run to the house and they never looked back. San Francisco went on to win by a score of 31-3, improving to 4-0 for the first time since 1990. Meanwhile, the underperforming Browns are left searching for answers.
San Francisco’s unbeaten start can largely be attributed to their much-improved defense. While it’s a given that they’d outperform the record-setting lows of last year, the jump from worst to (almost) first is somewhat incredible. After four games, the 49ers rank second in total defense, giving up an average of just 257.5 yards per game. The main reason why? A much-improved pass rush that is arguably the scariest in football.
On Monday, it was Nick Bosa’s time to shine. After a rivalry with Baker Mayfield that goes back to their college days, this is a battle that was no doubt pencilled into his calendar early. He won empathically. Bosa finished the game with two sacks, three quarterback hits, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. His 92.3 PFF grade is the highest pass-rush performance for a rookie since the creation of Pro Football Focus. His celebratory flag swing that mocked Mayfield will be saved in the highlight reel for many years to come.
Bosa wasn’t the only defender that needs praising. The whole unit worked together to shut down the Browns. Richard Sherman continued to steady the ship in his leadership role. On the other side, debutant Emmanuel Moseley held his own. Moseley had a key end-zone pass breakup in the second quarter that forced the Browns to settle for a field goal. Down the middle, Kwon Alexander has added a presence at middle linebacker that has been sorely missed over the last few years. Alexander picked off Mayfield on a 3rd and goal that could have gotten the Browns within seven points. The turnover led to more 49ers points and a 21-3 halftime lead.
Whether the 49ers defense was that good, or Bayer Mayfield was bad, will remain a question that may never get answered. What we can say, though, is that this was Mayfield’s worst career performance to date. The Browns quarterback had a measly eight completions for 100 yards, with no touchdown passes for the first time in his NFL career. On top of that, the offense converted on just one third-down attempt, although he wasn’t helped by a huge drop by Antonio Callaway and a clear lack of protection.
Run, run and more run
On offense, the 49ers’ success came from consistent running plays. They ran the ball 40 times. (Yes, you read that right – forty times). A committee of Matt Breida, Tevin Coleman and Raheem Mostert combined for 275 yards and two touchdowns. The ability of the trifecta to regularly gain positive yards allowed the 49ers to control possession of the ball for 37 minutes, compared to 22 minutes for the Browns. San Francisco currently ranks first in rushing, averaging 200 yards per game. Going forward, teams are going to have to find a way to slow them down or they face having a very tired defense.
The effectiveness of the running game allowed Jimmy Garoppolo and his receivers to keep things short. San Francisco’s franchise quarterback only needed to manage the game. Jimmy G finished with 181 passing yards, two touchdowns and no turnovers, and his longest completion of the day went for a mere 22 yards. Yet, that’s all that was needed and the need to take risks never arose. It was a much-improved performance from that of two weeks ago when the 49ers offense had five turnovers.
Monday’s game could have been considered a complete performance, had it not been for the field goal unit. Robbie Gould missed from 47 yards and 52 yards in the first half, and the misses were then followed by a botched snap and a blocked 32-yard field goal attempt in the third quarter. The three misses in this game equal his total number of misses over the last two years. Over that span, Gould has made 72 of 75 field-goal attempts, an NFL record over two years.
Another week, another injury
It wasn’t all good news for the 49ers. They suffered another key injury for the fourth week in a row. This time, it was the ever-reliant fullback Kyle Juszczyk. This injury is going to hurt the team big, as Kyle is a key part of their running game and often comes up with big passing plays too. He has an MCL sprain and is expected to miss four to six weeks.
The 49ers will take on the Los Angeles Rams at the Coliseum on Sunday. It will be San Francisco’s first divisional matchup of the season and provides them with a chance to make another big statement and move to 5-0. The Rams are coming off a 10-day rest after losing 30-29 to the Seattle Seahawks. The 49ers will get just six days’ rest.
Meanwhile, the Browns will try and get their season back on track with a tough home match-up against the Seahawks.
Feature Picture – Credit: Joshua Gunter/cleveland.com