49ers secondary continues big improvement in statement win over Browns

49ers secondary continues big improvement in statement win over Browns

SANTA CLARA -- Fifteen seconds ticked off the game clock when the 49ers defense handed the ball right back to the offense in the first quarter Monday night.

The 49ers offense scored on the preceding play -- their very first from scrimmage -- in a 31-3 rout of the Cleveland Browns at Levi’s Stadium. San Francisco cornerback Richard Sherman nearly one-upped them, snagging Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield’s pass out of mid-air with a well-timed jump.

“I knew the route,” Sherman said. “I ran it. The receiver took an extra step, Baker took an extra hitch because he was getting hit. … He tried to put some air under it because he was throwing it later than he should’ve, and I was still able to get it.”

It didn’t result in more points, but Sherman’s second pick of the season was a sign of things to come.

The 49ers held Mayfield, the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, to just 8-of-22 passing for 100 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions in Monday’s win. Mayfield's passer rating (13.4) was lower than that of Browns wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. (118.8) and backup QB Garrett Gilbert (39.6). Beckham and Gilbert each attempted one pass.

Sherman and the rest of the 49ers secondary blanketed Beckham and the Browns receiving corps, too. Beckham had as many catches (two) as rushing attempts, and Jarvis Landry was the only other Brown with multiple catches. San Francisco relied on its secondary depth in order to do so.

Emmanuel Moseley, who started in place of injured corner Ahkello Witherspoon, broke up Mayfield’s pass intended for tight end Demetrius Harris in the end zone early in the second quarter. K’Waun Williams, the 49ers’ nickel back, intercepted Mayfield in the red zone on the next Cleveland possession. On a night when the Browns made a concerted effort to target Sherman, the supporting cast stood tall, too.

“From what I saw, he played a lot like we expected,” Shanahan said of Moseley, who made the first start of his NFL career. “The game’s not too big for E-Man. He’s very competitive out there. … He’s always going to be physical. He’s not going to turn anything down, and when I did see them challenge him -- especially on that go-route by our sidelines -- there’s no hesitation, and he tried to get after it.”

Moseley’s pass break-up and Williams’ interception allowed the 49ers to all but put the game away. The Browns settled for a field goal on the former possession, and a possible 14-10 lead turned into a 21-3 first-half advantage when the 49ers scored following the pick. Those plays, and Monday’s performance as a whole, continued the 49ers’ year-over-year improvement in the secondary.

San Francisco infamously forced just seven turnovers last season, intercepting two passes and finishing 2018 with an NFL-low 39 passes defended. After four games this season, the 49ers are tied for second with seven interceptions and fourth with 28 pass break-ups.

Sherman credited the entirety of the 49ers’ defense for Monday’s dominant display, not just “one man” or “one unit.”

“This isn’t a fluke that we’re running through these teams,” Sherman said. “It isn’t a joke. It isn’t a game. Other teams just struggle with these guys, and we (held the Browns) 31-3, and that’s from Pro Bowl, All-Pro talent up front and in the secondary and in the (linebackers’) room.”

[RELATED: Grading 49ers' dominant offense, defense in win vs. Browns]

The 49ers largely stood pat in the secondary this offseason, relying on the same core group and instead improving their pass rush and linebacking corps through the draft and free agency.

With more talent surrounding them, the once-beleaguered group is reaping the rewards in San Francisco’s best start in three decades.

49ers' pass rush returns to 'fun' style of play vs. Drew Brees, Saints

49ers' pass rush returns to 'fun' style of play vs. Drew Brees, Saints

NEW ORLEANS – The 49ers’ pass rush can once again be a factor this week.

The 49ers went into their Week 13 game against the Baltimore Ravens knowing they had to make some dramatic changes with their style of getting after the quarterback.

After all, they could not be so aggressive, as 49ers defensive line coach Kris Kocurek teaches, because of the running ability of Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson.

On Sunday, they can get back to normal against the passing attack of the New Orleans Saints with quarterback Drew Brees.

“Those guys want to get after the quarterback,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said on the 49ers Insider Podcast. “I know the D-line. I know their coach. It was a tough week for them. But they rose to the challenge and played those techniques very well. I thought they did a very good job against Baltimore and stopping the run.

“And now this week, you still got to stop the run. It always starts with that, but you can play a little more of those techniques you’re used to, which I know they have a lot more fun playing and I know we have a lot more fun coaching it, too.”

It certainly will not be easy for the 49ers’ pass rush to get to Brees, who has been sacked just nine times on 249 drop-backs this season. Brees gets the ball out quickly, in order to neutralize the 49ers’ pass rush of Arik Armstead, Nick Bosa, DeForest Buckner and Dee Ford.

A week ago, the 49ers played a different style in an attempt to prevent big plays from Baltimore’s quarterback-driven run game. Buckner registered the team’s only sack, and that came for zero yards.

The 49ers gave up some rushing yards, but made adjustments in the second half to limit Baltimore to just three points in the final 30 minutes.

[RELATED: How will 49ers deploy running backs?]

“When you do that, you definitely have to change-up your fronts and play run-first at all times,” Shanahan said. “You got to almost play in a four-point stance and just control people instead of teeing off on guys and trying to go through them. I know last week was a frustrating week.”

The 49ers own the league's top-ranked passing defense, allowing just 134.2 yards passing per game. The 49ers rank second in the NFL with 45 sacks.

49ers Mailbag: How will Kyle Shanahan deploy running backs vs. Saints?

49ers Mailbag: How will Kyle Shanahan deploy running backs vs. Saints?

NEW ORLEANS – It’s a good problem for the 49ers to figure out who among their running backs they are going to feature.

Leading rusher Matt Breida is scheduled to return to action on Sunday against the New Orleans Saints after missing three games with an ankle sprain. Raheem Mostert is coming off a 146-yard day, the best game from a 49ers running back in three years. But what kind of role will he play on Sunday?

That question leads off this edition of the 49ers Mailbag:

Coach Kyle Shanahan and his staff put a lot of discussion into how they are going to use their backs. Shanahan talks to his entire offensive staff, as well as quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, about which plays are best fits for which players.

Then, Shanahan’s in-game decisions are also influenced by which running back is having the most success.

“None of them are bad at anything, so whatever we end up going with, all of them have a chance, whatever play it is,” Shanahan said on 49ers Game Plan, which airs Saturday at 7 p.m. on NBC Bay Area and 9 p.m. on NBC Sports Bay Area.

“We definitely try to decide which one we prefer during the week. We go into the game with a plan, but then we always stick with what’s hot.”

Tevin Coleman has been getting the starting assignments. It remains to be seen if that will continue, but Breida and Mostert should get their opportunities, too. 

I don’t know about using Daniel Brunskill for any trick plays, but it might not be a bad idea to mix him in for a series here and there to ease Joe Staley back into the action.

Staley has missed nine games this season, and Brunskill has shown to be a very effective player. It could be something along the lines of how the 49ers got Ahkello Witherspoon back into his starting role. At first, they had Witherspoon and Emmanuel Moseley sharing the playing time before Witherspoon was all the way back.

Richard Sherman will play despite hobbled last week with a knee injury. He appeared to be moving well during 49ers practices this week in Florida.

The only 49ers starter who will not play on Sunday is strong safety Jaquiski Tartt, who may miss multiple games with fractured ribs. Marcell Harris will start at strong safety. But everybody else is good to go, including Breida, Staley and Dee Ford.

My hunch is that if the 49ers do not place the franchise tag on Arik Armstead, he will end up signing a lucrative multi-year contract with another team as an unrestricted free agent. The 49ers' top priorities to sign to multi-year extensions are defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and tight end George Kittle.

[RELATED: Kittle on pace for best PFF season]

Neither Jalen Hurd nor Trent Taylor will play this season. Hurd will miss his entire rookie season due to a stress reaction in his back, while Taylor is out for the season from complications after undergoing surgery on a Jones fracture in his right foot.

The 49ers elevated defensive lineman Kentavius Street to practice this week. The 49ers might use their final injured reserve/designated to return spot on cornerback Jason Verrett, who has been out with a knee injury. He could return to practice as early as Wednesday.

The odds are very slim that Marquise Goodwin will be back on the team next season. He is scheduled to make $4.5 million in salary and bonuses in 2020, and that is not a price the 49ers are going to pay for what he gives them.

The 49ers are not giving up on Dante Pettis, though. They want him to put in the work during the offseason to have a big bounce-back season.

Pettis experienced the same kind of second season as Ahkello Witherspoon. Both players experienced success to ends their rookie seasons and thought they had it figured out.

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Witherspoon struggled in Year 2, and realized what he had to do in order to perform at a high level. He came back focused for a strong third season.

The 49ers hope Pettis will make the same kinds of adjustments to his work ethic and mindset to become a reliable receiver in 2020.