Two of the NFL’s top defenses will be on display Sunday when the Cleveland Browns travel to the Bay Area for the second time in three weeks to face the San Francisco 49ers. The Browns previously were defeated by the Oakland Raiders two weeks ago, but have since rebounded with a 6-3 home win over the Seattle Seahawks. Cleveland’s victory, coupled with losses by the Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams, has given San Francisco a three-game lead in the NFC West. With the Browns looking to stay in the AFC North mix and the 49ers looking to maintain their own conference standing, here are five storylines to track in this non-conference matchup. 1. Points at a Premium
Typically, six points won’t win you many games in the National Football League. But if your defense is as stout as Cleveland’s (allowing 20.0 points per game), you’ll find ways to win on Sundays. That’s exactly what the Browns did against the Seahawks last week, holding them to 137 yards and three points while improving to 3-3 on the season. It was the fewest yards allowed by Cleveland since 1993 and was easily their best performance of 2011, the first year with Pat Shurmur as head coach. “They’re very creative in their schemes,” fellow rookie head coach Jim Harbaugh said this week. “And they play very well – very clean in their assignments and in their technique… It’s a salty, salty defense.” Only eight teams have allowed fewer points than Cleveland, and the 49ers are one of them. San Francisco’s own salty defense allows 16.2 points per game, which ranks second in the league behind the Baltimore Ravens. This week, the 49ers could lower that total facing a banged up Browns offense. Wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi and tight end Benjamin Watson suffered concussions against Seattle and neither player returned to the game. Massaquoi has been ruled out for Sunday; Watson returned to practice on Friday. Also, Pro Bowl running back Peyton Hillis has been hampered by a hamstring injury and sat out against Seattle. With Hillis’ lack of playing time, the Browns have surpassed the 20-point mark just once this season, and it came in a Week 2 victory over the winless Indianapolis Colts. Points will be at a premium when both sides square off on Sunday. Whichever team can score early and let its opportunistic defense go to work will likely come out on the winning end. 2. Hillis vs. Willis
Two of the NFL’s premier players at their positions could meet on Sunday when Hillis, Cleveland’s hard-running rusher, attempts to return to the starting lineup to face Patrick Willis
and the stingy 49ers defense. Hillis, however, is questionable to play, but will make the trip to San Francisco over the weekend. Willis and Hillis, two popular players in the NFL, were also part of EA Sports’ Madden 2012 cover vote campaign. Both made it to the final eight of the fan vote, but ultimately it was Hillis, not Willis, who took home the cover honors. Months later, Hillis has struggled to maintain his Pro Bowl play from 2010. This year, he’s carried the ball 60 times for 211 yards and has two rushing touchdowns. Hillis, who has been hampered recently with hamstring problems, practiced on Wednesday, but sat out the rest of the week and has been ruled questionable for Sunday. In Hillis’ absence last week, second-year runner Montario Hardesty set career highs in carries and yards against a tough Seahawks rush defense, rushing 33 times for 95 yards. “They have some good running backs,” Willis said of the Browns. “Hillis, we all know, is a good back and runs hard. Hardesty, he’s a new guy on the scene, runs hard. He’s from the SEC, so what’d you expect?” So is Hillis, for that matter. But there are two other ball carriers the 49ers should prepare for. Chris Ogbonnaya, who was recently plucked from the Houston Texans’ practice squad, added 15 rushing yards and 43 receiving yards against Seattle. And it’s also worth noting that former Stanford fullback Owen Marecic hasn’t enjoyed the same do-it-all role he enjoyed under Harbaugh in college. Through six games, the rookie has caught three passes for 18 yards and has rushed twice for four yards. But no matter who carries the bulk of the load for the Browns rushing attack, they’ll have to account for Willis and his tackling cohort NaVorro Bowman
, who leads the 49ers with 68 tackles. So far, the most yards allowed to an opponent were surrendered to Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, who rushed for 75 yards on eight carries. The best performance by an opposing running back came in Week 3 when Cedric Benson rushed 17 times for 64 yards. The 49ers have yet to allow 4.0 yards per carry to an opposing running back and they are the only team in the league that hasn’t allowed a rushing touchdown all season. 3. Offensive Returns
Injuries won’t dictate the 49ers’ starters on offense or defense, according to Harbaugh. Instead, it’s practice performances that’ll dictate who starts. That philosophy comes into focus this Sunday with the 49ers hopeful to get two starting-caliber players back into the mix. Wide receiver Braylon Edwards
and fullback Moran Norris
both suffered injuries in San Francisco’s overtime loss to the Dallas Cowboys. Edwards was pulled immediately while Norris was able to play through his injury. Both players practiced on a limited basis this week, with Edwards being ruled questionable and Norris being listed as doubtful. “I’m doing a lot better than I have been,” Edwards said. “It’s one of those situations where we’re handling it professionally, going day-by-day and seeing if we can do more today than we did yesterday. We’ll see what happens.” In Norris’ absence in the past four games, rookie Bruce Miller
has looked strong while filling in his place, despite it being Miller’s first season playing fullback. In Harbaugh’s mind, practice performances will be the determining factor on who eventually starts. “We’ll see who’s playing better, who’s practicing better, who gives us the better opportunity will dictate who will start.” Since Joshua Morgan
’s season-ending injury, veteran Ted Ginn Jr.
has been the starter opposite of Michael Crabtree
. If Edwards is able to showcase a strong week of training, he could be in the lineup to face the team that drafted him third overall in the 2005 NFL Draft. Edwards’ presence could be crucial in the 49ers attempt to win after the bye week. This season, teams across the league are 3-9 coming off the bye and the 49ers certainly don’t want to continue the trend. 4. Under PressureAldon Smith
hasn’t started a game for the 49ers this season and yet the No. 7 overall pick, who has won back-to-back Pepsi Rookie of the Week awards, leads the team with 5.5 sacks. All of Smith’s sacks have come in the past three games while the rookie outside linebacker continues to earn more playing time on a talented San Francisco defense. As a unit, the 49ers are tied for 7th in the NFL with 17 sacks. Underlying the team’s success in the front seven this season is the fact that no sacks have come from members of the secondary or even from the team’s talented inside linebackers, something that can be attributed to defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. “He knows how to get the matchups he needs, with D-linemen, linebackers, cornerbacks,” said defensive tackle Ray McDonald
, who has 36 tackles and 3.0 sacks in his first season as a starter. “He’s a genius up there in the box.” San Francisco’s lack of exotic blitzing will come into focus against a Browns offense that has allowed 14 sacks. Led by All-Pro left tackle Joe Thomas, who has started in all 70 games of his professional career, Cleveland’s offensive line returns only two starters from last season. The other returner is Pro Bowl center Alex Mack, who played collegiately at Cal. With turnover on the line, and right guard Shawn Lauvao day-to-day with a knee bruise, the Browns offensive line will be tested. So far, they’ve given up 38 quarterback hits this season. Cleveland has also fallen behind early in games, being outscored 34-3 in the first quarter. As a result, second-year quarterback Colt McCoy is averaging 42 passes a game and has been pressured heavily by opposing defenses. 5. Field Goal Force
The 49ers have yet to block a field goal under new special teams coordinator Brad Seely, but could break that streak against the Browns. Last week, Cleveland’s veteran kicker Phil Dawson had two field goals blocked. He did, however, connect on field goals from 52 and 53 yards out despite suffering a right thigh contusion. The blocks came from Seattle defensive end Red Bryant, who got excellent push through a number of Browns to make the impact plays. “We need to clean that up,” Shurmur said on Monday. “The execution of the field goals just wasn’t to my liking, and you can’t have them blocked. You just can’t. You get what you emphasize and we’re going to work… to make sure it doesn’t happen again.” The closest the 49ers came to blocking a kick this season came in a Week 2 defeat to the Dallas Cowboys. Reserve defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois
got a piece of Dallas’ game-tying field goal, but not enough to prevent the attempt. “This year we got to get a solid block – somewhere, somehow,” Jean Francois said. “We’ve got to let the special teams coach be happy about that. Ted (Ginn Jr.) already has two returns (for touchdowns), we have to at least get a block and return it for a touchdown. Or just a block, at least.” This week, Seely will have familiarity with Cleveland’s personnel having served as their special teams coordinator for the past two seasons.