On a clear and crisp Friday morning, P.J. Walker confidently took charge of the Browns' practice session for Week 6 as the starting quarterback for the week. The cool air only added to the session's intensity, setting the tone for a promising week ahead.
After QB Deshaun Watson was ruled out for Sunday's matchup against the 49ers, Walker was named the starter by HC Kevin Stefanski.
"P.J.'s a pro," Stefanski said. "He's seen a lot of football, been in different systems. Had a good week of practice and understands that he just has to do his job."
Walker will get his first start in a Browns uniform this season and will be going against one of the best defenses in the league. The 49ers defense ranks first in points allowed and is fifth in EPA/play, a stat less influenced by the team's offense. They are also fourth in pass defense EPA.
San Francisco's defense boasts two superstars who can cause havoc for any opponent. After five weeks, the highest-graded defender overall, according to Pro Football Focus, is DE Nick Bosa. He also ranks fourth in run defense grade and second in pass rush grade among edge defenders.
LB Fred Warner was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week for his performance in the 49ers' win over the Cowboys in Week 5. Warner's dominant defensive performance included eight tackles, a sack, an interception and a forced fumble. He also prevented Dallas' wide receivers from completing any passes in his coverage downfield.
"Probably one of the top-front sevens in the NFL," OC Alex Van Pelt said of the 49ers. "They're big, they're strong, they're long. The front four is awesome, you know Fred Warner is, in my opinion, one of the top two linebackers in the league playing at an extremely high level. So [a] huge challenge for us."
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The 49ers also acquired pass rusher Randy Gregory from the Denver Broncos on Oct. 6. Gregory has accumulated nine tackles, two tackles for a loss, two quarterback hits, a sack and a pass deflection through four games with the Broncos this season.
The Browns offense has a challenge in front of them against the 49ers defense, but there are ways for them to make their day successful.
This season, the 49ers' defense weak spot has been defending the run. The 49ers are 18th in the NFL for EPA allowed per rush, with the most damage in the first half against both the Rams and Cardinals. The Browns run game has an opportunity to be successful on Sunday.
The Browns have wanted to build out the presence of their run game, using RB Jerome Ford and Kareem Hunt to move the ball downfield. Ford has showcased his versatility as a running back. He rushed for an impressive 106 yards against the Steelers and caught a pass for a touchdown in the game against the Titans in Week 3. The Browns have a chance to use their backs to exploit the 49ers run defense.
The offense could see some challenge in the passing game, however. The 49ers are 15th in the league in QB pressure percent per drop back, according to Pro Football Reference, at 25.4 percent. The 49ers are also averaging 5.7 yards gained per pass attempt this season.
The Browns also need to limit their turnovers. During the past week of practice as well as during the bye week, the focus during practice was to emphasize the importance of preserving the football possession. The team was encouraged to avoid committing turnovers and always protect the ball.
"That's the number one objective of this game is to come out with zero giveaways," Van Pelt said. "It's been talked about already this week. It'll be talked about all the way up until game time."
Sunday's game comes with its own challenges, especially now that Watson has been ruled out. But not one player in the locker believes they won't win Sunday.