Three writers for 49ers.com offer different opinions on the keys to the San Francisco 49ers upcoming road game against the Cleveland Browns.
Let's get to the four downs for Week 14 of the 2015 regular season, when the 49ers will look to make it two straight road wins following a Week 13 victory in Chicago.
1st Down: Who will score the 49ers first touchdown?
@Joe_Fann: Shaun Draughn
I'm all about the revenge-game narrative. And while Draughn told the media this week that he's treating the game like any other, I bet he would love to score against the team that cut him earlier this season. Draughn has been a dynamic back since signing with San Francisco, accumulating 78 total touches in four starts. The running back scored his first touchdown in a 49ers uniform last week on a 1-yard plunge against the Chicago Bears. If any goal-line carries arise on Sunday, Draughn should be in line for those opportunities.
@TylerEmerick: Anquan Boldin
Boldin enters Sunday needing only 11 catches to become the 13th player in NFL history to record 1,000 career receptions. His season high this year is eight catches, but in each of the last two games, Boldin has been targeted at least 11 times. I think Blaine Gabbert looks for Boldin early and often against a Browns defense that has surrendered the third-most passing touchdowns in the league this year. Plus, Boldin is motivated to reach the milestone after his old friend from Arizona, Larry Fitzgerald, accomplished the feat last week.
@TaylorPrice: NaVorro Bowman
The 49ers defense scored the team's first touchdown last week on a 29-yard pick-six from Jimmie Ward. So why not do it again? I can see Bowman using his football acumen to correctly read a short Johnny Manziel pass and return it for a touchdown. Another option: Bowman strips a Browns runner for a scoop-and-score touchdown. Bowman's play-making ability has only ramped up in recent weeks. It's fair to assume that he is capable of solidifying his Pro Bowl campaign with a touchdown on Sunday.
2nd Down: Who is the most intruiging Browns player to watch?
@Joe_Fann: Duke Johnson
The rookie running back has been used primarily in the passing game this season. Johnson's 48 receptions rank third on the team, as do his 440 receiving yards. The second-round pick has also scored twice as a pass-catcher and has a long reception of 52 yards. Johnson has caught at least four passes in each his last three games. Teams will often look to get their rookies more involved as the season goes on. The Browns could certainly do that with Johnson this Sunday, especially given that they're out of playoff contention.
@TylerEmerick: Gary Barnidge
The 49ers have only allowed three touchdowns to tight ends this season, but they face a breakout player at the position in Barnidge on Sunday. The 30-year-old is in the midst of a Pro Bowl-caliber campaign, leading the team with 60 catches, seven touchdowns and 817 receiving yards. Barnidge signed a three-year contract extension worth a reported $12 million on Thursday, so he'll be motivated for his first game since. Look for Manziel to rely on Barnidge as a security blanket.
I'm a little surprised my colleagues passed on "Johnny Football." We know there are 52 other players on Cleveland's roster, including former 49ers like safety Donte Whitner and punter Andy Lee. Both players will be under the microscope against San Francisco, but the conversation of most-anticipated player has to be the lighting rod of football commentary that is Manziel. He's 1-2 as a starter this season and has been given multiple chances to be a franchise quarterback for the "Dawg Pound." Will he seize it on Sunday? Manziel's leash is four-games long as of now.*
3rd Down: What 49ers position group will you watch closest?
@Joe_Fann: Wide receiver
Blaine Gabbert has connected with Torrey Smith on big plays in back-to-back weeks: a 41-yard pass play against the Cardinals and the game-winning, 71-yard touchdown against the Bears in Week 13. Boldin is also averaging north of 74 yards and six receptions in three games with Gabbert as his quarterback. Cleveland has allowed 25 passing touchdowns this season and will be without their two top cornerbacks against the 49ers: Joe Haden and Justin Gilbert. That could mean big games are ahead for San Francisco's top wideouts.
@TylerEmerick: Tight end
Remember back in training camp when the 49ers had a wealth of depth at tight end with eight quality players? Roster moves and injuries have eaten at that depth, and it's possible that Blake Bell is the only remaining healthy one of the original bunch on Sunday. Garrett Celek is in the concussion protocol, so his status is questionable. If he is unable to go, it's likely that San Francisco would promote one of its two tight ends from the practice squad, Jamie Childers and Brian Leonhardt. Bell has come on strong of late, catching a combined four passes for 72 yards in his last two games.
@TaylorPrice: Special teams
I'm going to cheat a little bit and cast a wide net. Phil Dawson is returning to Cleveland, the city he called home for 14 productive seasons. Bradley Pinion looks to build on his stellar showing in Week 13. Replacing a punter of Lee's caliber is no easy task, but Pinion was able to showcase his strong leg last week in Chicago. Can he do it again? Lastly, I'm curious to see how the coverage units respond after giving up a 74-yard kick return last week which nearly set up a game-winning Bears field goal.
4th Down: The most telling stat will be...
San Francisco's defense hasn't had a multiple-sack performance since Week 11, and the unit hasn't had a three-plus sack outing since Week 6. Sunday might be the perfect opportunity for the 49ers to get to the quarterback. Yes, Manziel does excel at extending the play with his legs, but the Browns have still allowed more sacks than any other NFL team (41). A big game could be in the cards for Aaron Lynch if he's cleared to play after sustaining a concussion last week. If healthy, Lynch could add to his career-high 6.5 sacks on the season.
@TylerEmerick: Quarterback rushing yards
Whenever Manziel is in the game, people are going to expect to see the Heisman winner scramble and use his legs. But did you know that Gabbert has run for more yards in four starts this year (140) than Manziel has in 11 career appearances (119)? Some of that is a product of circumstance, but Gabbert has shown a knack for using his athleticism at just the right time. Quarterback runs are a backbreaker, so both defenses will have to keep containment.
Two young teams in search of a late-season victory must avoid a back-breaking turnover. Gabbert has been wise with his decisions. Offensive coordinator Geep Chryst said Gabbert has taken "profit," which has "rewarded" the offense in his four starts. Gabbert has been intercepted three times on 127 pass attempts this season. The 49ers have only lost one fumble this season, too. Protecting the ball on the road will be essential if San Francisco wants to win consecutive games for the first time this season.