Some final thoughts, numbers and observations from the Cleveland Browns’ 19-17 upset of the San Francisco 49ers.
1. In my postgame column, I went over some of the Browns’ ridiculous defensive numbers. They held the 49ers to just 3-of-12 on third downs, and their 23.1 percent defensive third-down conversion rate for the season is on an early pace to be the best ever. For now, it’s 10 percentage points better than the NFL’s second-best third-down defense, the Atlanta Falcons.
Through five games, the Browns defense has allowed just 1,002 yards. That’s the fewest allowed through five games by any team since 1971. Yes, more than a decade before Kevin Stefanski was born. The Browns are the league’s best defense by more than 60 yards per game, and they’re 100-plus yards per game better than all but eight teams.
The 49ers entered Sunday with a streak of eight straight games scoring at least 30 points, the fifth-most in league history, and they marched downfield for a touchdown on the game’s first drive.
Then they got 6 total yards in the third quarter and went more than 30 minutes of game time from the late second to late fourth quarters without registering a fresh set of downs. Myles Garrett, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Dalvin Tomlinson — just to name a few — started living in the 49ers’ backfield, and between penalties and Brock Purdy miscues, San Francisco continually found itself in unmanageable down-and-distance situations that made Cleveland’s nasty pass rush even nastier.
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Through six weeks (Cleveland is one of six teams that’s only played five games) the Browns have the league’s best defense on third down, in forcing three-and-outs (59 percent of opposing possessions) and in points allowed per drive, a staggering 0.98. They’re second in touchdowns per drive behind the Baltimore Ravens, and that’s even more impressive when you consider they’ve given up one-play touchdown drives in their last two games following interceptions that set up goal-to-go situations. With those plays looming large, the Browns are tied for 26th in red zone efficiency, per TruMedia, and tied for 31st in goal-to-go defense.
In five games, only five drives that have started in the opposing offense’s territory have reached the Browns’ red zone. No other defense is in single digits. That’s dominance, and Browns defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz looks not only like the most important offseason addition the Browns made, but one of the most important and impactful additions any team made.
2. Line ’em up and lock ’em up. That’s what Schwartz is able to do with cornerback Denzel Ward playing at an incredibly high level and fellow cornerbacks Martin Emerson Jr. and Greg Newsome II also excelling. Emerson recorded his first NFL interception in the third quarter on Sunday, and it was the first pick Purdy has thrown this season.
Denzel Ward vs. the 49ers:
29 coverage snaps
1 catch, 8 yards allowed
39.6 passer rating allowed
— PFF CLE Browns (@PFF_Browns) October 17, 2023
Per Pro Football Focus (PFF), the Browns played man coverage on 66.7 percent of Purdy’s dropbacks, by far the most man-to-man they’ve played this season. PFF had the Browns recording pressure on 57 percent of Purdy’s dropbacks, which was also a season-best for Cleveland. Pressure is the root of every success in Schwartz’s defense, and constant pressure makes good pass coverage even better.
“They played aggressive man coverage,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said Monday. “We knew that going into it. They had a couple of pressures that got us, and we had a couple mistakes that got us in really negative situations. We had two drives in that game that didn’t have a negative play. That was the first drive that we scored a touchdown, and it was the last drive where we ended up missing that field goal. We got in some negative situations where we had second-and-long and third-and-long. And then with that pass rush and the tight coverages, that makes it really tough on a quarterback.
3. The Browns survived a roller-coaster game to get to 3-2. It’s been such a roller coaster in general that it feels more like five months than five games into an 18-week marathon, but there’s a long way to go.
Being 3-2 is probably where I thought the Browns would and needed to be. Nobody was projecting a Deshaun Watson injury — and headed to Week 7, nobody seems to have a clear answer on when he’ll return. Stefanski didn’t offer one Monday, and after what he said about Watson being medically cleared to play in Week 4, the head coach is going to remain hesitant until the quarterback is fully ready.
The giveaway in Pittsburgh was brutal, then and now. The white-flag game versus the Ravens was disappointing on many levels, and we’ll see if that comes back to bite Cleveland later. If the Browns are going to be a playoff team, they have to win consecutive games for the first time — and they have to continue growing offensively, regardless of who’s at quarterback. It’s hard to imagine they can win many more with P.J. Walker as the starter, but Stefanski’s game plan gave Walker and the offense a chance while the defense did the heavy lifting (and heavy punching). The Browns are winning despite having a minus-8 turnover ratio.
Cleveland put forth a winning effort over the final three quarters against a team that still might be the league’s best, and when Jake Moody’s field goal sailed right, that effort was validated. Considering the mystery and messaging surrounding Watson’s injury and that the Browns were left to call up a quarterback from the practice squad to start, this win calms a lot of the outside angst and has to be a big boost internally, too. The defense put out a signature performance, and the Browns got contributions from a lot of places to both rally and hold on.
Is it a signature win? I don’t know such things exist in October. If the Browns can run off a few, it can be looked back upon as a launching pad. For now, though, they all count in the standings — and I think it’s fair to say it was a big one for perception and overall temperature. While we wait on Watson and an offense that badly needs reps and work, Cleveland can trust its defense.
4. If the Browns sign Walker to their 53-man roster ahead of Wednesday’s practice, don’t necessarily consider that a tell on Watson’s status for the week(s) immediately ahead. It might be, but as long as he’s on the practice squad, he technically can be signed by another team except the Indianapolis Colts. Practice squad players can’t be signed by their team’s next opponent six days or less before a game.
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With so many quarterback injuries across the league and Walker now having eight starts of NFL experience, the Browns probably need to protect themselves by making a roster move and adding him to the 53-man roster. It would be unlikely but not completely out of the question that a future Cleveland opponent with available salary-cap space would make Walker an offer with a signing bonus nice enough to at least give him a decision to make.
A part of the reason the Browns were able to sign Walker to their practice squad was that the Chicago Bears cut him in late August despite giving him $2 million in guaranteed money in March. The Bears now are in a bit of a quarterback scramble with Justin Fields likely out indefinitely due to a thumb injury.
5. After two weeks of struggling in different circumstances and against two of the NFL’s better run defenses, the Browns got their rushing attack going against the 49ers. Per PFF, Browns’ runners got 106 of their 160 rushing yards after contact.
Jerome Ford’s runs of 13 and 22 yards, respectively, in the second half were huge plays. Kareem Hunt’s 16-yard run on a third-down wrinkle with tight end Harrison Bryant at quarterback opened the Browns’ scoring. Hunt started the game, which was notable but also not a certain tell on the Browns’ thinking with their running back depth chart.
“I think it just varies by game,” Stefanski said. “I think a lot of the schemes that we have, they vary based on the front that we’re seeing, based on the personnel that we’re in. … We like that room, that running back room. We think Kareem and Jerome complement each other and the different things that they can do. We think Pierre (Strong Jr.) has a bright future with us as well. So it varies by game, it varies by matchup, but I think the credit goes to the coaches and the players ultimately in executing the plan.”
The Browns have used Ford to line up in various positions across the formation, and Strong has taken snaps early in each of the last two games. It’s probably fair to say Hunt is in better football shape now than he was when he first signed, considering he didn’t participate in training camp, but I don’t know that he’s actually the starter in the eyes of the coaches.
The defense continues to help the Browns dominate the time of possession. They ran 70 plays to the 49ers’ 55, and that was a significant factor in the Browns using the run to grind out big yards in the fourth quarter.
6. If you had a parlay of David Bell making a big fourth-down catch in the fourth quarter and joining Jedrick Wills Jr. to knock 49ers all-world linebacker Fred Warner to the ground on Hunt’s touchdown run, I’d like to be advised of your selections going forward. Wills also got downfield on that play to help escort Hunt into the end zone.
Here’s what I’d say about Bell, Hunt and the overall state of the offense: all contributors are welcome. This team’s ceiling is still tied to Watson coming back and playing at a high level, but the defense is performing well enough that Cleveland can make a playoff push by just finding a way to mix smart football with power football — and the occasional big play by Amari Cooper. Even with limited style points, the Browns can keep themselves in the playoff mix over the next month-plus by just winning the games they’re supposed to, starting with this week against the Colts and backup quarterback Gardner Minshew.
7. The special teams played a part even outside of Moody’s miss. The 69-yard punt by Corey Bojorquez late in the first half forced the 49ers to just take a knee instead of having a potential scoring opportunity. Dustin Hopkins made 4 of 5 field goal attempts. The Browns made a change in the return game with practice squad promotion Jaelon Darden taking over as both the primary kickoff returner and primary punt returner. When the Browns were in a safe-catch situation deep in their own territory, they went back to Donovan Peoples-Jones as their punt returner.
By now it’s clear the Browns aren’t going to be a team that makes explosive plays in the return game. But solid special teams help produce wins, and hidden yards like the ones Bojorquez got with that late first-half punt matter. Stefanski chose to punt in the fourth quarter and trust his defense, and got away with both using a timeout and taking a delay of game to get there. On Monday, Stefanski said the Browns originally leaving their offensive line in was based on the original spot being changed and them needing more to convert the first down than they initially thought. I’m not sure that explanation fully makes sense, and they probably should have just taken the delay, but they got away with it.
The Browns were certainly fortunate to win considering the late pass plays and kicks that went in their favor, but it was far from fluky. The defense was really that good, and we’ll go forward with the assumption that it’s good enough to give the team a shot every week.
(Top photo: Ken Blaze / USA Today)