Two teams led by first-year head coaches square off on Sunday in Candlestick Park as the Cleveland Browns head west to battle the San Francisco 49ers. The Browns head into the game with a 3-3 record after a hard-fought 6-3 win against the Seattle Seahawks. The 49ers enter the game with a 5-1 record and are coming off of their bye week, which was preceded by a dramatic win against the Detroit Lions that was concluded by one of the most controversial handshakes in postgame history.
Three Things to Watch:
1. D’Qwell Jackson vs. Frank Gore
Despite the change in head coaches, the 49ers’ offensive game plan remains the same: hand off to Frank Gore, hand off to Frank Gore, and then hand off to Frank Gore one more time. Gore is eighth in the NFL with 541 rushing yards on 109 attempts. The 49ers are second-last in the league in passing yardage, averaging only 171 yards per game. The Browns have the best pass defense in the NFL, and the 49ers will have a tough time winning without a stellar performance from Gore. Browns linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, who has showed no ill effects this season from the injuries that have plagued him over the past few seasons, will do his best to keep Gore from running roughshod over the Browns’ defense. Jackson is sixth in the NFL with 40 solo tackles and he will seek to add to that total on Sunday as he attempts to limit Gore’s production.
2. Montario Hardesty vs. Patrick Willis
Last week, the Browns went back to their characteristic run-heavy style in the win against the Seahawks. Star running back Peyton Hillis could not play because of a hamstring injury and second-year running back Montario Hardesty got the start for the Browns. Hardesty’s career-high 33 carries for 95 yards against a tough Seahawks run defense helped the Browns control the clock and maintain control of the game. Hillis has missed two practices this week, and it is possible that his hamstring injury will once again force him to the sidelines. The 49ers currently have the second-best run defense in the league, allowing only 74.7 rushing yards per game. The Browns have struggled in games in which quarterback Colt McCoy has been forced to throw often, and another strong performance from Hardesty will be necessary if Hillis’s hamstring prevents him from playing this week. Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis will do his best to contain Hardesty and keep him from allowing the Browns to control the game on the ground.
3. The Browns’ Special Teams vs. Ted Ginn, Jr.
In recent seasons, the Browns’ special teams were one of the team’s strongest areas. This year, the Browns’ special teams have struggled mightily. In their game against the Oakland Raiders, the Browns surrendered a kickoff return for a touchdown to the Raiders’ Jacoby Ford. Last week, the Browns almost surrendered a punt return for a touchdown to the Seahawks’ Leon Washington but were bailed out by a very questionable illegal block penalty. This week, the Browns will face Ted Ginn, Jr., one of the league’s premier returners. Ginn began the season by returning a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown in the 49ers’ first game and has continued to excel throughout the course of the season. The 49ers currently lead the NFL in kickoff return yardage, averaging 30.9 yards per return. Additionally, they are fifth in punt return yardage, averaging 13.7 yards per return. The Browns’ special teams units will need to contain Ginn and limit him from pulling off yet another highlight-reel runback.
Prediction: Sure, last week’s Browns\Seahawks game wasn’t pretty from an offensive standpoint. Nevertheless, the fact that the Browns’ defense played a solid game and stopped the Seahawks when they needed to do so in order to win the game was lost amidst fan laments about a lack of offensive firepower. The Browns will bring another solid defensive effort this week and keep the game close, but the Browns’ offensive struggles will keep them from getting the points that they need to win. Gore and quarterback Alex Smith will be able to do just enough to help the 49ers earn their sixth victory of the season by a score of 17-10.