Fresh off a dismantling of the Baltimore Ravens, the Browns again take to the friendly skies, this time for a cross-country trip to the Bay Area. There, they won’t find gold, but they will find the 3-0 San Francisco 49ers.
Those gold-helmeted leaders of the NFC West will host the Browns in Santa Clara, California, at their shiny Levi’s Stadium for a dance under the lights on Monday Night Football. Here are the key ingredients for a winning mix for the Browns.
1. Get off to a fast start
This is a generic first goal of every team, especially a road team, but it could go a long way toward helping the Browns leave the Bay Area with a 3-2 record.
They did so in Baltimore, somewhat, putting together a scoring drive that was as much a statement as it was methodical. And while a touchdown is always nice, the most important detail at that moment in the Week 4 game was: It came after the Browns went three-and-out on their opening possession.
The point: The team took an early lead, which reinforced its belief in what it was attempting to accomplish, and also was nice to have when the opponent rallied to tie the game early in the second half. Taking a lead, seeing it tied, and then regaining it is a heck of a lot easier than attempting to dig oneself out of a deep hole.
This is what will help the Browns in Week 5 following a cross-country flight and change in time zones. Establishing an early lead and leaning on Cleveland’s stellar defense will give the team much better chances of leaving with a win than spending much of the game attempting to make up ground. It’s simple math, really.
2. Stop their run
San Francisco is off to a 3-0 start to 2019 in large part because of its run offense, which relies on effective zone blocking, stretch runs and play action built off it. It’s been a staple of Kyle Shanahan’s offense since he was in Washington, and especially during his days in Atlanta, in which he directed the Falcons to an unbelievable pace, an NFC championship and a 28-3 lead in Super Bowl LI before — well, we all know what happened.
The 49ers have stocked their backfield accordingly with an array of talented runners who make for a headache for opposing defenses and a nightmare for fantasy owners. The best way to force them out of their comfort zone? Eliminate their ability to run the ball effectively.
This starts by stringing out those outside runs — stretches, tosses and the like — and forcing the 49ers to look elsewhere on the ground. This is where the Browns might hold an advantage, as they’ve displayed a consistent ability to do so since the early portion of training camp, no matter the opponent. Other traditionally effective zone runners have struggled against this Browns defense in the first few weeks, with Le’Veon Bell and Todd Gurley combining to fall well below the 100-yard mark in their Weeks 2 and 3 meetings with the Browns.
There’s a simple but effective reason for why the Browns have been good against such types of rushing attacks: Discipline. Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson emphasized it when asked about how to defend outside runs effectively on Friday -- "nobody's trying to be Superman out there" -- and defensive coordinator Steve Wilks explained it’s all about avoiding distraction.
“I think No. 1, it is just a mere fact with how they establish the run game and then everything off the play-action looks exactly like the run,” Wilks said Friday. “Kyle does a tremendous job with how he sets things up and how he schemes. This is going to be a great game for us from the standpoint of eye discipline and making sure our eyes are in the right spot because you will get a lot of what I call window dressing with a lot of motion trying to really take your eyes off of your main focus and your target.”
Pre-snap activity will make things less clear to anticipate for the Browns’ front four, but they’re a highly talented group with a couple of rising stars alongside two established veterans. They should be ready to handle whatever San Francisco brings at them on the ground, which can force the Niners to throw and potentially push them out of their comfort zone.
As we all know, that’s when the turnovers happen. And that’s when the Browns can capitalize.
3. Rely on your run
This point should be expected after Nick Chubb ripped off 165 yards and three touchdowns on the ground as part of a 530-yard, 40-point offensive effort. Things are a lot easier when you can run the ball effectively.
This defense, though, has the best front four the Browns have seen yet. San Francisco has invested plenty of draft capital in the group and added a cherry on top in the offseason when it signed Dee Ford, and it’s ready to face the challenge of a Chubb-led backfield.
Much like the 49ers will attempt to confuse the Browns’ defense, the same should be expected from Freddie Kitchens’ offense. We saw it at times last week in Baltimore and were witnesses to the results, and it might be even more necessary to create natural creases in the running game.
We know, after four games, that the key to the Browns’ offense operating with rhythm and comfort is first making strides on the ground, even if it requires some stubbornness early. That same stubbornness is likely in Kitchens’ luggage this week, and if it again pans out — it doesn’t need to be 165 and three scores, but just consistent gains — he can expect to stuff a W into that luggage for the return trip home.