Editor's note: Tony Grossi covers the Cleveland Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR.
Browns v. San Francisco 49ers
Monday, 8:15 p.m., in Levi’s Stadium; Santa Clara, CA.
Last game: Defeated Pittsburgh Steelers, 24-20, Sept. 22, in Levi’s Stadium.
Coach: Kyle Shanahan, 13-22, third season.
Series record: Browns lead, 12-7.
Last meeting: Browns won, 24-10, Dec. 13, 2015, in Cleveland.
League rankings: Offense is fourth overall (second rushing, 20th passing), defense is third overall (fifth rushing, 21st passing) and turnover differential is minus-1.
Things I think
1. Kyle Shanahan is running the same stretch-zone offense that made the Browns a surprise playoff contender in 2014 and took the Falcons to the Super Bowl after leading the NFL in scoring in 2016. It’s a system that tires a defensive line by forcing it to defend the running game laterally. Imagine the offensive line moving together as a picket fence laterally, and then the back making one cut and darting vertically downfield. His offenses always have success running the ball -- he is one of the few coaches who features a fullback -- which sets up play-action passing. Shanahan’s quarterbacks often throw on the move to help the offensive line. The system has a knack for getting receivers wide open and easy targets for the quarterback. Case in point: In his second season last year, George Kittle, who never had more than 22 receptions at Iowa, broke the NFL record for receiving yards for a tight end with 1,377 on 88 receptions. Kittle had phenomenal yards-after-catch figures because he was often uncovered due to Shanahan’s scheme.
2. The 49ers drafted defensive linemen high in the first round in four of the last five drafts. To better put them to use, Shanahan named Kris Kocurek his defensive line coach to implement the wide-9 system Kocurek ran for eight seasons in Detroit under former Lions coaches Jim Schwartz and Jim Caldwell. The wide ends now are rookie Nick Bosa (No. 2 overall in 2018) and Arik Armstead (No. 17 in 2015). DeForest Buckner (No. 7 in 2016) is the group’s best player and is a force against the run and pass inside. Solomon Thomas (No. 3 in 2017) adds to the depth, as does free agent pickup Dee Ford, whose bad knee may reduce him to situational rush duty. Counting Ford, the No. 23 overall pick in 2014 by the Chiefs, the 49ers have five former No. 1 picks in their eight-man rotation up front.
3. Do the 49ers have buyer’s remorse for giving quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo a five-year contract for $137.5 million, including $74.1 million guaranteed, after only six games in 2017? Garoppolo suffered a torn ACL in his left knee in the third game of 2018. But in three games this year, the former Tom Brady backup appears to be every bit the quarterback the 49ers paid for. After favoring the plant knee in preseason, Garoppolo is showing no signs of agility problems executing Shanahan’s offense. His super-quick release and pinpoint accuracy are back. Garoppolo is completing 69 percent of his passes and has five touchdowns through three games. His four interceptions have been noted by critics, but two of them were deflections off his pedestrian receivers’ hands. The one question mark about Garoppolo living up to his contract is his durability. He missed games with the Patriots because of a right shoulder sprain and then came the left ACL tear in 2018. In six NFL seasons, Garoppolo, 28, has started only 13 games. He is 11-2 as a starting quarterback.
4. How far can the 49ers go after their 3-0 start? They don’t have the offensive star power of the Browns, but Shanahan’s system seems to make playmakers out of ordinary players. Their defensive line is the truth, but there are holes in the secondary. They are definitely trending up, however, and their playoff chances hinge on four games against division rivals Seattle and the Rams.
Did you know … ?
1. Shanahan was gifted Garoppolo, his franchise quarterback, by Bill Belichick one day before the trade deadline in 2017. During the 2017 offseason, Belichick consistently told interested teams that Garoppolo was not available through trade – even though most knew the Patriots couldn’t afford to give Garoppolo a contract to turn down impending free agency. Belichick rebuffed both the 49ers and Browns at the NFL Combine, sources have reported. As the trade deadline neared and Belichick realized he had to do something, he called Shanahan and offered him Garoppolo for a second-round pick even though the QB-desperate Browns had multiple high draft picks burning holes in Sashi Brown’s pockets. Interestingly, when 49ers GM John Lynch initially asked about Garoppolo and was turned down, he joked, “What about Brady?” There is only speculation about how long Belichick thought about it.
2. While Belichick burned the Browns on the Garoppolo trade, the Browns gained some revenge on the 49ers this past offseason. Both teams coveted receiver Odell Beckham Jr. The 49ers thought they made a strong trade offer to the Giants and were willing to go further to pair up OBJ with Garoppolo. But Giants GM Dave Gettleman worked the deal instead with friend John Dorsey – for less than what the 49ers offered, according to a source – and never got back to the 49ers. They were not happy about that.
3. The 49ers abandoned fabled, yet decrepit, Candlestick Park as their home stadium in 2014 for $1.3 billion Levi’s Stadium, some 40 miles south in Santa Clara, CA, on grounds that used to house an amusement park next to the team’s headquarters building. The move has not been an easy one for the club, as critics contend the team lost its home-field advantage by moving into a drab, corporate atmosphere. The 49ers are 17-24 in Levi’s Stadium.
Small world: Kyle Shanahan was Browns offensive coordinator in 2014 and then resigned, presumably because of interference from executive levels inside the building … Running back Raheem Mostert played for the Browns in 2015 … Cornerback K’Waun Williams played for the Browns in 2015-16 … Assistant head coach/tight ends coach Jon Embree was Browns tight ends coach in 2013 … Quality control coach Miles Austin was a Browns receiver in 2014 … Run game coordinator Mike McDaniel was Browns receiver coach in 2014 … Pass game coordinator Mike LaFleur was an offensive intern for the Browns in 2014 … Outside linebackers coach Johnny Holland was inside linebackers coach for the Browns in 2016.