Here are three bold predictions for the Browns in Week 5.
4. Baker Mayfield continues to improve
It was a rough start to his sophomore campaign for the record-setting rookie. Over the first three games, Mayfield threw for a total of 805 yards, three touchdowns, and five interceptions, while completing just 57% of his passes. He did not look like his usual self. He was paranoid in the pocket, constantly feeling pressure that wasn’t there, and rolling out to his right.
When he did stay in the pocket, he’d fade back away from the line, throwing off his back foot. He showed flashes of his pinpoint accuracy, but he also had many uncharacteristic misses. Even more concerning, Mayfield was not seeing the field well. He would have his head turned toward a wide open receiver, but never saw him. He was trying too hard to push the ball downfield and wasn’t taking what the defense gave him.
Things changed against the rival Baltimore Ravens, even as Odell Beckham Jr. was taken away from the gameplan by the defense. Mayfield looked much more comfortable, staying in the pocket and delivering strong passes to many different receivers. He didn’t force passes, and took the easy play, which often resulted in large gains because of the attention Beckham drew away from Cleveland’s other weapons.
Mayfield finished the game 20-for-30 for 342 yards, one score, and one pick, which wasn’t entirely his fault. He’s still far from perfect, but he is trending upward. The 49ers defense presents him with a unique challenge. San Francisco’s front-seven is fantastic, which will test Mayfield’s pocket presence all game long. But outside of Richard Sherman, their secondary is rather weak.
Mayfield should be able to make use of a nearly complete group of skill players and put together a second consecutive great performance.
3. The defense allows over 150 yards rushing
San Francisco doesn’t have a runner on par with Nick Chubb, but they still have a very strong ground game. Through their three contests thus far, the Niners are averaging 175 rushing yards, second in the NFL. And the team has done that without Jerrick McKinnon and (for the most part) Tevin Coleman.
Matt Breida and former Brown Raheem Mostert are both over 200 yards and five yards per carry, thanks in large part to the scheming and play-calling of head coach Kyle Shanahan, another past member of the Browns. Cleveland ranks 21st against the run, so on paper, this is not a great matchup for them.
The Niners should be able to control the tempo early on, at least until Cleveland’s passing attack gets going. Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks should prefer giving up yards on the ground to letting tight end George Kittle dominate further down the field, which could open up running lanes for the backs.
2. The defensive line dominates
The 49ers’ defensive line is excellent, but so is Cleveland’s. Myles Garrett ranks second in the league with six sacks and Larry Ogunjobi has added three more. Sheldon Richardson and Oliver Vernon don’t have the numbers of the first two, but their impact is felt beyond the stat sheet.
San Francisco’s offensive line will have its hands full, especially sixth-round rookie left tackle Justin Skule, who will likely be blocking Garrett for much of the game. The defensive line must exert its will to help the still banged-up secondary.
1. The offense proves it’s legit
Putting up 40 points against the Ravens was impressive, but the Niners’ defense is much better. The Browns offense will have to rise to the challenge, and they’re getting healthy at just the right time.
Wide receivers Rashard Higgins and Antonio Callaway returned to practice on Thursday, and Jarvis Landry cleared concussion protocol on Friday. Even without David Njoku and Kareem Hunt, Mayfield has a multitude of weapons at his disposal. San Francisco had better hope they can get pressure with just four rushers, because they won’t be able to blitz much without giving up the chance of a huge play.
This issue will be magnified if Richard Sherman remains on his side of the field and doesn’t shadow OBJ. If last week really was the catalyst for Cleveland’s offense finding its groove, the 49ers are in trouble, and so is the rest of the NFL.