49ers Prove Early Success No Fluke After Signature Win Over Cleveland

SANTA CLARA — Entering Monday night, the 49ers were largely billed as an illegitimate undefeated team. A weak opening schedule (Tampa, Cincinnati and the Ben Roethlisberger-less Steelers) was the most glaring excuse. But also: They don’t have a solid secondary. They don’t have elite receivers.  And the good old they’ve just lost for so long that something has to give, right? The NFL zeitgeist wasn’t mentally prepared for the 49ers to be good. Especially this good. 

Well, after a commanding 31-3 win over the Cleveland Browns, a team dripping in unwarranted swagger, in front of a national audience, the 49ers have the league’s attention. Now 4-0, they join the New England Patriots as the only undefeated teams in theNFL. 

Monday night’s signature win was a masterclass in preparation and offensive scheming by Kyle Shanahan who outclassed Freddie Kitchens throughout. In true Shanahan fashion, Matt Breida and Tevin Coleman, back from injury, combined for 211 rushing yards. Jimmy Garoppolo was sharp and mostly mistake-free, passing for 181 yards and two touchdowns. Garoppolo’s numbers would have been boosted if not for a few drops by his receivers, including a would be touchdown that was mishandled by Dante Pettis. 

But the San Francisco’s stout defensive front stole the show Monday. Nick Chubb was held in check, especially in the first half, and the 49ers exited the game keeping their status as the only NFL team yet to allow a rushing touchdown this season. 

This unit easily penetrated the Browns offensive line and constantly pressured Baker Mayfield who was stymied from the start. The 49ers recorded four sacks, two of which were courtesy of rookie Nick Bosa who turned in his best NFL performance. Bosa was also involved in a plethora of pressures, forcing Mayfield to throw the ball away. On one of those plays near the end of the first half, the overmatched quarterback rolled out to pass but Bosa quickly grabbed hold of him, forcing a throw away. Bosa then punctuated the play by exacting revenge on Mayfield from their college days with a celebration that was two years in the making. He pretended to wave, spear and then plant an imaginary flag as Mayfield did in 2017 when his Oklahoma Sooners upset Bosa’s Ohio State Buckeyes. 

Bosa said he practiced the flag plant during the week, with the memory still deeply etched in his brain. The stoic defensive end claimed he doesn’t typically trash talk on the field but for Mayfield he made an exception. “I don’t usually talk, but this guy had it coming,” Bosa said without wincing. During the game, Bosa treated Mayfield to taunts like Baker? Baker? You good. Step it up. We want a challenge.  Mayfield presented no challenge, especially in the second half when the Browns offense collected just one first down.

“I don’t know how anyone is able to see over Arik [Armstead] and [DeForest] Buck [ner}. We had him rattled all game. I knew he’d hold on to it which we love,” Bosa said, beaming about his teammates. “We’ve been rattling all the quarterbacks we’ve played.”

Bosa was not alone in asserting that Monday’s defensive gem was simply a microcosm of what the 49ers have been displaying all season. 

“These guys are playing All Pro and Pro Bowl football. This isn’t a fluke that we’re just running through these teams. This isn’t a joke,” Richard Sherman said. “Other teams struggle with these guys and that’s from All Pro/Pro Bowl talent up front and in the secondary and in the linebacker room and those are the kinds of conversations that need to be started.”

Sherman, who was on top defensives with the Seahawks and won a Super Bowl, has been reborn in San Francisco this season. On Monday, he, along with Emmanuel Moseley, filling in for the injured Ahkello Witherspoon, shut down Cleveland’s splashy receiving corps. Odell Beckham Jr. ended the night with just two catches and 27 yards. 

San Francisco’s defense is now second to just New England in yards allowed per game (257). To date, they have stifled Joe Mixon, James Conner and now Chubb. 

The 49ers know it’s early. They know the Rams await next weekend, and Shanahan said he will continue to operate as if the team is 0-4. “The league is too hard to be overconfident. Every week is a tough week and we’ve got a lot of work to do,” he said during his postgame presser.

Still this 49ers team is markedly different than the losing squads that defined Shanahan’s first two season. They are mostly healthy, though an MCL injury to fullback Kyle Juszczyk is a new issue. Shanahan has the pieces he needs to executive his signature playbook. The defensive line is built to dominate and coordinator Robert Saleh has mastered scheming to his players’ strengths. And yes, they are winning in a multitude of ways. 

Sherman, for one, had an emphatic message for those who didn’t believe this team was capable of such success: Stay off the bandwagon. 

“You want idiots to sound like idiots. Don’t try to give us credit now. Just stick with it. If you had us ranked 25, keep us ranked 25. At least stick by your word because I want you to sound like an idiot at the end.”