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.”
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.