CLEVELAND — I’m the first to admit I didn’t give the Cleveland Browns much of a chance Sunday.
Nope. Basically none. Not with a third-team quarterback called up from the practice squad, and not against a loaded San Francisco 49ers team that had been so efficient offensively it seemed hangover-proof. Crazy things happen in the NFL, but I thought the Browns winning in these circumstances would be ludicrous.
I’m here reporting live from the land of the ludicrous, just a few feet under the scoreboard that reads Browns 19, 49ers 17. Go ahead and call me a non-believer because I was. Emphasis on “was.”
I don’t know where this Browns season is headed, and we still have nothing on record about the status of quarterback Deshaun Watson and his injured shoulder. But I am here to declare this Browns defense as the nastiest version of the team’s new era. I’m also here to tell you that although I’m not retiring from the prediction business, I’m done doubting this defense, even a little.
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It’s really that good. It’s not perfect, obviously, and the defense thought it had let the team down on the final drive before 49ers kicker Jake Moody missed what would have been the game-winning field goal from 41 yards out. But what really happened between the game’s first drive and that last drive was a display of defensive athleticism, guts, want-to and belief that should make the fan base proud.
The Browns have made approximately 842 questionable hires at various levels of the organization and football operation in the team’s new era, but five games into a season of high stakes and high expectations, everything I’ve seen tells me January’s hire of Jim Schwartz as defensive coordinator is one of the best.
What Schwartz is selling, teaching and preaching, his players are clearly buying. I’m all in, too.
The 49ers’ first drive was machine-like. They went 84 yards in five plays with the help of two Browns 15-yard penalties. The 49ers scored an opening-drive touchdown for the eighth straight time, and I started to wonder both if San Francisco might win 50-0 and if Cleveland’s defense had been figured out by teams with enough talent to expose its over-aggressive tendencies.
I didn’t truly start to realize how wrong I was — or wonder if my original prediction on this game was wrong — until much later. It was the defense’s steady takeover of the game and the constant Browns pressure rattling 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy that made me think Cleveland had a chance. It was that disruption that kept giving the Browns chances, too, and eventually, Cleveland uglied it up to the point that its four second-half field goals were enough to put it all on Moody and one missed kick at the end.
If you win on third downs, you give yourself a chance to win games. And what became one of the wildest roller-coaster wins the Browns have secured in a long time was set up by the aforementioned wins on third down, where the 49ers converted just 3-of-12. Schwartz believes pressure affects quarterbacks and play callers even when it doesn’t end up in box scores or postgame mea culpa columns, and the Browns kept coming after Purdy and the Niners.
Through five games, Browns’ opponents are 15-of-65 in trying to convert third downs. That’s a 23 percent conversion rate for opposing offenses, which is the league’s best. The best third-down defense for a season since the NFL started tracking it in 1991 was the 2017 New England Patriots at 24.1 percent, and only four defenses have finished a season under 27 percent. It’s a long way from the finish, but the Browns are making almost every third down hell on their opponents.
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Last week, the 49ers converted 6-of-11 third-down tries in a rout of the Dallas Cowboys. The 49ers came to Cleveland converting 48 percent for the year — and 56 percent in Weeks 3-5. Purdy was completing 72 percent of his passes before his trip to Cleveland, and he hadn’t thrown an interception.
Purdy’s stat line Sunday: 12-of-27 for 125 yards, one touchdown and one interception for a quarterback rating of 55.3. Purdy’s previous low quarterback rating this year was 93.1, and his low in a game he started last season was 87.4. He’d been sacked eight times in five games before Cleveland sacked him three times Sunday. San Francisco reached 30 points in nine of the previous 10 regular-season games Purdy has started, including all five this season.
For as much as the numbers jump off the page — like the 49ers only getting 6 net yards in the third quarter on nine official snaps — the Browns’ overall quickness and ability to get in the backfield causes problems you can’t quantify. Yes, the 49ers losing Deebo Samuel in the first half and Christian McCaffrey in the second half to injuries made them easier to defend, but the Browns remained difficult to block.
Schwartz said last week that when the Browns are playing like they’re supposed to and running through or past blockers, it looks like they have 15 players on the field. I felt I saw that on numerous occasions over the first three games, and I felt like Purdy was seeing a little bit of that in Sunday’s second half. He clearly was sped up and believed he needed to get rid of the ball before he wanted to.
The Browns took the lead late in the third quarter and immediately pushed the 49ers back to their own 10-yard line by drawing a holding call, then a false start, then a Sione Takitaki sack of Purdy when it appeared the quarterback thought he’d found some room to run. Myles Garrett didn’t record a sack Sunday, but he got a hand on the ball that became Martin Emerson Jr.’s interception early in the third quarter just before Purdy released it.
We’d like to welcome you to Emerson Island, we hope you enjoy your stay 🏝 pic.twitter.com/gs7IxqpdLI
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) October 15, 2023
The Emerson interception was on third-and-10 on the 49ers’ first series of the second half. Thanks to penalties and two sacks, the 49ers in that third quarter faced miserable situations such as third-and-19 and first-and-25. In what was the polar opposite of the game’s first drive, those situations are an offensive coach’s nightmare and a defensive coordinator’s dream.
With 7:54 left in the first half, the 49ers kicked a field goal to go up 10-0. Their next six possessions ended as such: punt, kneeldown to end the first half, interception, punt, punt, punt. In that six-series stretch, the 49ers totaled three first downs — all three of which came on the first of those six series. That run of thorough Browns’ dominance ended in the fourth quarter with a one-play drive, Jordan Mason’s 8-yard touchdown run that was set up by an interception and return to give the 49ers a first-and-goal.
We’ll call that a gimme. The 49ers actually moved the chains on a play from scrimmage with 4:09 left in the first half on a Ray-Ray McCloud run to the perimeter, then didn’t get a new set of downs until the game’s final drive when Emerson was flagged for pass interference with 1:30 left in the game. Staggering. Swarming.
A 49ers interception ended the Browns’ first offensive series of the game, and that was a prediction I actually got right. But what happened from there kind of foretold everything else. San Francisco took over at Cleveland’s 26-yard line and ended up losing 10 yards on a tackle for loss by human missile Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, followed by a false start penalty, an incompletion and a surrender draw. Moody missed a 54-yard field goal, and it felt like the Browns had settled in.
Owusu-Koramoah is playing the best football of his career. Ogbonnia Okoronkwo doesn’t play every down, but he makes a splash play in every game. His speed is a problem, as is the speed of those who play behind him. Schwartz is able to move Garrett around the formation in passing situations because he trusts the other players to perform their assignments and generally beat the blockers assigned to them, and that causes a whole new set of issues and checks for offenses.
“We’re here,” Garrett said. “We’re unrelenting.”
Safety Juan Thornhill won two Super Bowls in Kansas City, but he said this defense is the best he’s been a part of. Defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson said he was proud of the way his group bounced back from the first drive and said the Browns’ defensive firepower is “unmatched.”
Schwartz needed more manpower on the defensive front — he got it, and that group is flying to the ball. Doing what it did on this stage against a previously unbeaten 49ers team should bring some spotlight to a defense that last season had a few big games but more big misses. In the postgame locker room, cornerback Greg Newsome II said that wasn’t the Browns’ focus.
“Before this game, we already knew that we were the best in the world,” Newsome said.
It’s still mid-October, but I’m not going to argue that. There’s a long way to go, but I’m a full believer in this defense.
(Photo: Jason Miller / Getty Images)