Last week against the Bengals, the Browns played their worst game since the opening day disaster against the Steelers and it more-than-likely sealed their fate as post-season spectators. While this week's game has no real playoff implications, it remains a huge game for both teams. The Browns have a chance to finish 7-1 at home while the 49ers have the opportunity to finish the season on a 3 game winning streak.
The Browns offense has been sputtering. While many seem to put all the blame on the play of quarterback Derek Anderson, the Browns QB is not totally at fault. The receiving corps - which has played at a phenomenal level all year - has been guilty of dropping important passes and not defending the pass. Putting your body between the ball and the defender is a must. For Anderson it is fairly simple, when he sets his feet he is a very good quarterback but when he fails to set his feet, he becomes very erratic and loses his accuracy. Look for a great deal of improvement this week in the passing attack but also expect a run-first approach to the game on Sunday.
Jamal Lewis is, in my opinion, the comeback player of the year. He has put together a tremendous season despite an offensive line that truly didn't begin to gel until the later half of the season. He was also slowed with an ankle injury. In his last 6 starts Jamal is averaging 110 yards per game and nearly 4.7 yards per carry. Jamal is peaking at the perfect time of the year.
The Browns offensive line may be the best in football. The pass protection that this unit has provided is special. Derek Anderson has been sacked 13 times. It wasn't long ago when it seemed like the Browns starting quarterback was sacked 13 times in two games. As mentioned above, their run blocking has been taken to a new level. This group seals and traps so effortlessly that it is amazing to watch.
Braylon Edwards continues to set records but this week he faces up against one of the better corners in the league in Nate Clements. Nate is one of the bigger more physical corners in the league and the 49ers may look to place him in single coverage against Braylon. This is a match up Edwards and Anderson will look to exploit.
Mike Nolan has pieced together the makings of a very good defense, led by rookie Patrick Willis. Willis has the natural instincts combined with athleticism and intelligence to be a star in this league for years to come. Willis has made strides in his coverage but he in a monster in stopping the run. He has that rare ability to not only read the play but also the skill to take the proper angles while making the solo tackle at the point of attack.
Bryant Young has been a mainstay for the 49ers defensive line. While the defense has slowly been working its way to a younger and more athletic defensive front, Young's experience and hustle has been invaluable to this defense. Bryant should provide one of the most entertaining match -ups of the day as he faces off against the Browns Ryan Tucker.
With Nate Clements expected to play Braylon in single coverage, the 49ers will give the Browns tight end Kellen Winslow the majority of attention. Safety has been an issue for this defense as they have been slow to pick up the tight end once he gets into the secondary.
While the 49ers defense has made huge strides, injuries have hurt, especially in their ability to rush the passer. Look for added playing time for many of the youngsters as this team evaluates for their off-season needs. This is a much better defense than they are credited for but they can't defend when the offense is continually producing 3 and out.
The 49ers offense has shown dramatic improvement under the leadership of quarterback Shaun Hill. Hill has shown a better understanding of the offense, improved accuracy and sound decision making with the football. His play has brought into question the talent level of veteran Trent Dilfer and former #1 overall pick Alex Smith. Hill will, however, loft the football on occasion without much on it. It could make for an easy pick for the Browns secondary. Hill is a question for Sunday's game with an injury and if he isn't able to play, Chris Weinke will get the start.
The primary receiving weapon for the 49ers is tight end Vernon Carey. Carey will become a much greater weapon once the 49ers are able to complete their offensive line and find the right signal caller to run this offense. In the meantime, Carey is asked to block a great deal more than you would expect for someone with his explosiveness. Look for the 49ers to use Carey as a pass catcher off of the play action fake.
Frank Gore is one of the most talented backs in the league. Despite having his carries limited due to falling behind early in games, he is still capable of taking over a game when the 49ers are able to show any semblance of a passing game. Without the passing attack, Gore faces 8 and 9 men in the box on a consistent basis. That will likely not change as he faces a Browns defense that will likely bring the pressure throughout the game.
Without a passing attack to truly challenge the Browns defense, Todd Grantham will likely load up to stop the run on a continuous basis, and may have to with the injuries sustained by the defensive line. With Ethan Kelly on injured reserve and Orpheus Roye, Shaun Smith and Robaire Smith the Browns will have difficulty in stopping the talented Frank Gore. The Browns may look to give Louis Leonard some playing time due to numbers and also game evaluation.
The Browns linebackers have truly stepped up their game, especially at inside linebacker. Andra Davis has stepped up his game and looks more comfortable within this defense. That may be due to the play of his counterpart D'Qwell Jackson. Jackson leads the team in tackles despite missing games due to injury. Jackson has improved with his ability to disrupt the opposing offense both in dropping into coverage as well as playing the run. His hustle has been contagious to this defense.
The Browns secondary will play a big role in stopping the run this week. Look for the corners to play man coverage while the safeties look to help in run support. This is an area in which the Browns have been exposed before as they tend to forget about the tight end. They can't afford to do that with the talented Vernon Carey. Sean Jones could have a difficult time if he is matched up one on one against Carey.
With the weather uncertain in Cleveland, this game could once again become a battle of field position. 49ers punter Andy Lee is one of the best in the game. Joshua Cribbs must be very careful this week as Lee is known to give returners difficulty. Cribbs should however have a better day in kick off returns. The 49ers will lose containment.