Baker Mayfield leads the Browns into Levi's Stadium for MNF
Four downs on Browns (2-2) v. San Francisco 49ers (3-0)
First down: Prime-time veterans.
Monday night marks the Browns’ third prime-time game in four weeks. This run of high-profile games was supposed to make or break them. So far, they’ve done fine. They cruised past the Jets, 23-3, in a Monday nighter in MetLife Stadium, and played tough defensively in a 20-13 loss to the Rams in FirstEnergy Stadium on a Sunday night. This game against the 49ers poses the double challenge of travelling to the West Coast in addition to being the visitor – for the first time in Levi’s Stadium – in front of a Monday night crowd. One big question mark when the Browns’ schedule was announced in April was how rookie coach Freddie Kitchens would manage the start-and-stop practice routine replete with so many off-Sunday afternoon kickoffs. How’s he done? Baker Mayfield said, “It has been a little bit difficult to get into a routine. I think the staff has done a good job of when we have an extra day on the week or a shorter week, they are doing a good job of keeping us somewhat in the routine. If we have to take the pads off, do a slower tempo and get more mental work, they are doing a great job of that. After we get past this Monday, I feel like it is going to be smooth sailing besides that Thursday game [Nov. 14]. We are one week at a time focus so that is why we are having success.”
Second down: Attention, linebackers.
While the Browns prefer to play a 4-2-5 base alignment on defense, with safety Jermaine Whitehead being the extra defensive back, Kyle Shanahan’s offense presumably forces coordinator Steve Wilks into the traditional 4-3 defense. Shanahan’s stretch-zone offense revolves around tight end George Kittle and fullback Kyle Juszczyk. The 49ers are the only team so far with more runs (114) than pass drop-backs (87). Shanahan’s back-by-committee includes Matt Breida (226 yards, 5.5 average), Raheem Mostert (202, 5.9) and short-yardage specialist Jeff Wilson (four touchdowns). A new threat could be Tevin Coleman, who is expected back after missing 2 ½ games with an ankle injury. Juszczyk is an able lead blocker and doesn’t carry the ball much but is used expertly in the passing game – sometimes split wide. Kittle is the team’s leading receiver (17 catches) -- he set an NFL record last year in receiving yardage for a tight end -- and also a mainstay run-blocker. What this probably means is Whitehead getting less play time in place of a third linebacker, most likely Adarius Taylor. This could be an active game for rookie Mack Wilson in pass coverage.
Third down: Wide nine = multiple tight ends.
The 49ers’ formidable, first round-heavy defensive line has switched to the “wide-nine” technique. This is a front made famous by the Eagles and Lions, in which the ends space out beyond the outside shoulder of the offensive tackles. The wide angles give the ends a headstart on beating their opponent and also can improve one-on-one matchups for the defensive tackles, particularly DeForest Buckner – the line’s best player. This will make it incumbent on the Browns to give their tackles help from a tight end. Spreading three or four receivers across the line of scrimmage would seem quarterback suicide for the Browns. The disadvantage of the wide-nine look is that it creates running and passing lanes between the tackles. But the 49ers have been stout against the run so far, yielding 121 rushing yards to Tampa Bay, 25 to Cincinnati and 81 to Pittsburgh. Those opponents have been held to 3.4 yards a rush and an overall passer rating of 72.7.
Fourth down: The Odell factor.
The 49ers are more dependent on their pass rush for this game because starting cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon (one pick 6) is out with a foot injury. His replacement is Emmanuel Moseley, a second-year undrafted free agent from Tennessee. The other starter is Richard Sherman, the NFL’s leading interceptor (33) since he entered the league with Seattle in 2011. Sherman is still good, but at 31, he can’t run with Odell Beckham Jr. So you would think the Browns might be thinking of a big day for Beckham, or another for Jarvis Landry, or maybe they send Antonio Callaway over the top against nickelback K’Waun Williams. In any case, protection will be the key for Mayfield against a defensive line that has produced all nine of the club’s sacks in three games.
Prediction: Browns, 24-23.
My record: 3-1.