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NFL Preview - Cleveland (3-3) at San Francisco (5-1)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Few could blame the San Francisco 49ers if they felt their bye week didn't exactly come at the most desired time.
Two weeks after their third straight come-from-behind road victory, San Francisco returns home looking to win five straight games for the first time in 10 years as it battles the Cleveland Browns Sunday at Candlestick Park.
The 49ers come out of their bye week as one of the hottest teams in the league. At 5-1, San Francisco leads the NFC West by three games over Seattle (2-4) and is trying to open a season with six victories in its first seven games for the first time since 1998.
A victory over the Browns would also give the Niners their first five-game win streak since Nov. 4-Dec. 2, 2001, one season before their last playoff berth.
"We were on a streak of winning and I believe we can still stay on that streak," said linebacker Ahmad Brooks. "We've just got to continue to prepare like we did before."
San Francisco made a bit of a statement before its week off, besting previously-unbeaten Detroit by a 25-19 margin on Oct. 16. Quarterback Alex Smith hit tight end Delanie Walker for a six-yard touchdown with 1:51 left in the game to lift the 49ers to victory.
The Niners' down time did allow the club to move past head coach Jim Harbaugh's odd exchange with Lions sideline boss Jim Schwartz after the game. Following the victory, an excited Harbaugh briefly shook Schwartz's hand and slapped him on the back. The Detroit coach took exception, saying afterwards he was shoved out of the way and heard an obscenity, and chased Harbaugh towards the locker room while needing to be separated from the Niner coach.
Instead, Harbaugh can concentrate on trying to solve a Browns defense that ranks in the top five in yards allowed per game.
"[The Browns] play extremely well on defense, that's what I've watched the most of," said Harbaugh. "Very disciplined. They're very creative in their schemes. And they play very well -- very clean in their assignments and in their technique. Very aggressive on the back end, just a lot of good, aggressive movement with the corners. They'll take chances. They'll break on the ball. They'll press you."
Cleveland's defensive ability was on full display last weekend, as it held Seattle to just 137 yards of offense in a 6-3 victory. The Browns improved to 3-3 on the season, their best start since opening 2007 with the same mark.
Cleveland also snapped a two-game slide.
"When you hold a team in the NFL to three points, that's outstanding," Browns head coach Pat Shurmur said. "I think that's a credit to the players and coaches."
Kicker Phil Dawson had all of the Browns offense by making a pair of field goals from beyond 50 yards, but also had two blocked. Still, it was enough to put the Browns in position to match the best start to a season since the franchise returned to the NFL in 1999, when it also went 4-3 in 2001 and 2007.
"It is good enough, I guess," Dawson said of his performance. "It was the prettiest 2-for-4 day that we'll ever have, so it is nice to help your team win a game, even though it was an ugly game. When your number is called, you go out there and try to do the best that you can."
Cleveland could be facing a former ally in 49ers wide receiver Braylon Edwards, whom the Browns selected third overall in the 2005 draft. Edwards was with Cleveland until getting traded to the Jets during the 2009 season, logging 1,289 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns in 2007.
Edwards has missed the last four games with a knee injury, but could return for this contest.
The Browns have an 11-6 advantage in their overall series with the 49ers and have won the last three matchups between the teams, the most recent being a 20-7 home triumph during the 2007 season. Cleveland also prevailed in its last stop at Candlestick Park, a 13-12 verdict back in 2003, and hasn't lost to the Niners since a 20-17 setback in San Francisco on Oct. 28, 1990.
Harbaugh and Shurmur will be opposing one another, as well as their counterpart's respective team, for the first time as head coaches.
WHEN THE BROWNS HAVE THE BALL
As good as Cleveland's defense was last weekend, the offense had a forgettable performance, failing to find the end zone despite amassing 298 total yards and nearly 43 minutes of time with the football. The Browns rank tied for 27th in the league in scoring at 16.2 points per game and saw quarterback Colt McCoy (1377 passing yards, 8 TD, 4 INT) sacked five times versus the Seahawks. He threw for 178 yards and was picked off once, but continues to build a repertoire with rookie wide receiver Greg Little (25 receptions). The 2011 second-round pick matched running back Chris Ogbonnaya with five receptions versus the Seahawks off a club-high seven targets. Little has 17 catches over his last three games and is tied for second among NFL rookies in receptions. McCoy also tried to get Joshua Cribbs involved, targeting the playmaker six times, but they hooked up just once for nine yards. The Browns' 29th-ranked run game was without Peyton Hillis (211 rushing yards, 2 TD) due to a hamstring injury, with backup Montario Hardesty (238 rushing yards) running for 95 yards on a career-high 33 carries in his place. Hillis is questionable for this game, as is guard Shawn Lauvao, who suffered a knee injury versus Seattle. Wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi (18 receptions, 2 TD) and tight end Benjamin Watson (20 receptions, 2 TD) both suffered concussions in the win as well and are both doubtful for Sunday.
Cleveland may have to lean on McCoy in this game, given that the 49ers rank second against the run (74.7 yards allowed per game) and are yielding the fifth fewest points with an average of 16.2 per game. San Francisco has also not allowed a 100-yard rusher in 28 straight games, the longest active streak in the NFL, and have done a great job of taking the ball away as well. They are tied for third in the league with a plus-8 turnover differential and rank third in the NFC with 14 takeaways. Though San Francisco ranks 22nd in the league against the pass, it leads the NFL with 29 passes defensed and is the only club in the league to not allow a rushing touchdown this season. Excellent play at the linebacker position is the club's strength. NaVorro Bowman (56 tackles) leads the Niners in tackles, logging 13 versus the Lions, fellow inside starter Patrick Willis (47 tackles) is one of the best in the game and 2011 first-round pick Aldon Smith (11 tackles, 5.5 sacks) leads all rookies in the conference in sacks from his outside spot. He also posted a safety versus Detroit and has a sack in three straight. Defensive tackle Justin Smith (22 tackles, 4.5 sacks) added 1 1/2 sacks against the Lions. San Francisco's secondary has grabbed eight picks on the season, led by cornerback Carlos Rogers' three and two from Tramaine Brock.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
While the defense has done its job taking the ball away, the San Francisco offense has held on to it. The 49ers are tied for second in the NFL with only six turnovers and rank sixth with 27.8 points scored per game. Running back Frank Gore (541 rushing yards, 4 TD) is leading the league's sixth-ranked rushing offense, which is averaging 131.5 yards per game and 193.3 over the past three games. Gore posted 141 yards and a score on just 15 carries versus the Lions, giving him three straight games of over 125 rushing yards and a touchdown. He is just 110 yards shy of passing Roger Craig (7,064 rushing yards) for second place on the club's all-time list. Gore's ability to make plays lightens the load for quarterback Alex Smith (1090 passing yards, 8 TD, 2 INT). The signal-caller, who has 12 passing touchdowns in his previous six home starts, threw for just 125 yards against Detroit on 17-of-32 throwing. Wide receiver Michael Crabtree (20 receptions) was targeted 15 times in that game, making nine catches for a team-leading 77 yards. Ted Ginn Jr. (6 receptions), Walker (11 receptions, 3 TD), Vernon Davis (24 receptions, 3 TD) and Gore all made two catches each.
The Browns could see a heavy dose of Gore if the Niners wish to avoid their second-ranked pass defense, which is yielding just 172.0 yards per game. That total has helped Cleveland rank fourth in total defense (291.0 ypg) and eighth in points allowed at 20.0 per game. Last weekend, the Browns allowed the Seahawks to move the chains on just two of their third-down tries, and the 137 yards the team allowed was its fewest since 1993. The Browns are looking to hold teams to under 150 net yards or less in consecutive games for the first time since 1954. Safety T.J. Ward (33 tackles) logged his first career sack, one of three by Cleveland versus Seattle, and forced a fumble in the process that was recovered by linebacker D'Qwell Jackson (54 tackles, 2.5 sacks). Linebacker Chris Gocong (15 tackles. 1.5 sacks) also had a sack last week and rookie lineman Jabaal Sheard (21 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and Phil Taylor (23 tackles, 2 sacks) were credited with half a sack each. That brought Cleveland's total on the season to 16, the most for the club through six games since logging 17 in 2001. Cornerback Sheldon Brown (17 tackles) also grabbed his first interception of the season in his 150th career game. Brown's pick was the fourth for the Browns this year, with former 49er safety Mike Adams (12 tackles) leading the way with two.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Cleveland was able to dominate Seattle last weekend in time of possession, but that won't be the case in this game if it can't stop Gore. The former Pro Bowl selection is riding a wave of momentum and logged 115 total yards from scrimmage in his only other meeting with the Browns.
One way that the Browns held onto the ball versus the Seahawks was by converting 12 of their 24 third-down attempts. They have been successful on 46.7 percent of their third-down chances over the past three games, compared to 35.7 percent in the first three contests.
If Cleveland can't move the chains, it will need to pin San Francisco deep. The 49ers have started 15 drives in their opponent's territory this season, first in the NFL, and have turned those opportunities into 50 points.
San Francisco will hope to avoid getting off to a slow start after last weekend's bye, a stretch Harbaugh dubbed "improvement week," but the extra time off should have Gore fresh and prepared to carry the load in this one. Cleveland has shown it can stop the pass with heavy pressure, but must key on Gore in this one. Six points also aren't going to get it done in this one, but the young McCoy may find it difficult to make things happen against San Francisco's talented linebacking group. The Niners have made a postseason appearance their top priority and will likely take another step towards reaching that goal this week.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: 49ers 24, Browns 13
10/27 19:12:48 ET
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