Hot Niners hoping to stay that way vs. Browns
Willis:
Willis: "Right now is when we can separate"
with NinersDigest/The SportsXchange
Posted Oct 29, 2011


Niners coach Jim Harbaugh has gotten plenty of time to cool off since his handshake gone wrong. He's hoping the bye week won't have that kind of chilling effect on his surging first-place team.

San Francisco will seek to stretch its winning streak to five consecutive games for the first time since 2001 when it returns to action Sunday against the Cleveland Browns at Candlestick Park.

Harbaugh's incident with Lions coach Jim Schwartz following a 25-19 victory Oct. 16 in Detroit is still generating some buzz, but the 49ers are likely more focused on adding to their three-game lead in the NFC West.

At 5-1, the Niners are off to their best start since 1998 and have the second-best record in the NFC. They’re eager to continue building on the momentum that is changing the outlook and culture for a team that hasn’t won a division title or posted a winning record since 2002.

"We've got 10 more games to continue that roll and continue where we left off," cornerback Carlos Rogers said. "It's going to be a tough task. We've got a lot of tough games coming up. I think our coaching staff and players, we're doing a good job of getting back to playing football."

It's uncertain whether the 49ers will have former Browns receiver Braylon Edwards available against Cleveland. Edwards hasn’t played since suffering ligament damage in his right knee in Week 2.

Edwards returned to practice Tuesday for the first time since undergoing surgery Sept. 19, but Harbaugh said he would need "more evaluation" before determining his status. Edwards practiced in a limited fashion every day the remainder of the week and was listed Friday as questionable to play against Cleveland, where Edwards spent his first four-plus NFL seasons after being drafted No. 3 overall out of Michigan in 2005.

Cleveland expected to have running back Peyton Hillis back in the starting lineup after he missed a game with a strained hamstring, but he hasn't practiced since suffering a setback Wednesday. Hillis is listed as questionable.

With the 49ers suddenly facing a game they very much should win, Harbaugh is working to make sure his players keep their edge.

Harbaugh's Niners have been thriving and surprising so far as one of the NFL's underdogs, rallying from behind to win their first three road games.

"We're in a good position," linebacker Patrick Willis said. "As we talked about in our team meeting, right now is when we can separate ourselves from other teams. We have to continue to press forward and not let up and keep it going."

Niners quarterback Alex Smith is quick to point out that teams are 3-9 this season in the week after their bye.

"With 10 games left, so much can happen," Smith said. "No question we got off to a good start, but there's still that pressure, that anxiety to keep this thing going. And I think all these guys feel it, and I think it's a good thing. You certainly don't want anyone feeling good, or complacent or anything."

Streaking Niners turning into media darlings?


There is too much good news for the 49ers these days. It all makes Harbaugh uncomfortable.

Much of it has to do with the team's lead in the NFC West. With the rest of the division losing games during the 49ers' bye week, San Francisco finds finds itself three games up in the division over Seattle (2-4), four up on Arizona (1-4) and five games better than St. Louis (0-6).

San Francisco returns to action against the Browns as a nine-point favorite. Meanwhile, the Rams play the surging Saints at home, Seattle hosts the 4-2 Bengals, and Arizona travels to Baltimore. By Monday, the 49ers could gain another game on their division rivals.

San Francisco is also contending for playoff position in the NFC. If the season ended today, the 49ers would be the No. 2 seed in the conference behind unbeaten Green Bay and receive a first-round playoff bye.

The 49ers are also gaining notice. The NFL’s Network's Michelle Beisner was at the team's facility this week, and the 49ers are beginning to headline national network shows such as ESPN's "NFL Live" and NFL Network's "Total Access."

Harbaugh once complained that his team wasn't getting enough recognition, and now, apparently, it's getting too much.

"When things are going well, you want to be extra hard on yourself," safety Donte Whitner said. "That's one thing that Coach Harbaugh gets across. He always tells us he wants things to suck more than they possibly can. That's what he's talking about. If you're hard on yourself, if you get up an hour earlier than what you normally do ... you're making it suck a little more for yourself, but in the process you're getting a little bit better and helping the team."

Several players are taking Harbaugh's advice to heart. In fact, many of them stayed at the 49ers' facility during the bye week to work out and watch film not only of Cleveland, but also of other teams on the schedule.

Browns loss of Seely is 49ers’ gain


Brad Seely left the Browns and brought Blake Costanzo along with him to the Bay Area. Now, these two have something pretty special going on special teams for the Niners.

Back in Ohio, Seely's old unit is struggling. The Browns miss the highly regarded coach who has become known as "The Professor" – for both his scholarly looks with those glasses, and for his teaching methods. Costanzo left quite a void, too.

Special teams are likely to play a key role Sunday when the Browns come to San Francisco for the first time since 2003.

Cleveland is trying to improve off a 6-3 win over Seattle last Sunday in which the Browns had the ball for nearly 43 minutes but managed a pair of field goals by Phil Dawson, both from beyond 50 yards.

They hope their second trip out West in three weeks goes better than the first. The Oakland Raiders returned a kickoff 101 yards for a touchdown and faked a field goal for a score in a 24-17 win on Oct. 16.

Against the Seahawks, the Browns gave up a punt return for a touchdown before it was called back on penalty. Needless to say, Cleveland coach Pat Shurmur focused on special teams this week.

Seely has been a big reason for the 49ers’ success so far.

During his two years with Cleveland, he developed impressive kick return and coverage units. He's doing the same thing for the 49ers, who have succeeded in all facets on special teams. There's kicker David Akers with 13 field goals and three from 50-plus yards, punter Andy Lee with his 50.5-yard average and return man Ted Ginn Jr., who ran back a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns in the season opener against Seattle.

"The Professor" is getting production out of Costanzo and the rest of his pupils as well.

Josh Cribbs, Cleveland’s ace return man, isn't surprised.

"He's very smart. He brought a lot of fundamental, basic stuff, just playing the game the way it's supposed to be played," Cribbs said. "A lot of guys get on special teams, they don't know how valuable special teams is to the football team. Brad being an assistant head coach as well, special teams is everything. You came off of offense and defense before you came off of special teams – just instilling that within the guys and how important it was to the football team. His attention to detail was just on point."

The Browns have all new schemes under new coach Chris Tabor.

Scoring an obvious issue in Cleveland


The good news from the Browns 6-3 win over Seattle on Sunday was Cleveland had the ball for 43 minutes of the game. The bad news: The Browns converted all that time of possession into just six points via two 50-yard plus field goals.

"I think it's very important we score points,” coach Pat Shurmur said.

Kind of obvious. But all important – especially for a young team with a young quarterback.

The Browns sustained drives and took time off the clock, as Cleveland was able to convert 50 percent on third down. But completing the drives also matters, and not many teams are going to win when the offense scores six points.

"We didn't score enough points," Shurmur said. "That's what I'd say."

It's been happening all season. The Browns are averaging 16.2 points, which ranks 27th in the league. That's simply not going to win many games.

The Browns didn't play very well against Seattle. In fact, they played very poorly on offense. Cleveland didn’t even get into the red zone until late in the fourth quarter.

But the Browns did win, and that moved them to 3-3, which makes them .500 six games into the season for the first time since 2007. That is important, because a team that has not known success welcomes any sense of achievement it can get.

"It doesn't always have to be pretty," Shurmur said, "but we need to fight to get a victory and just stay the course."

They won thanks to the defense and the poor play of Seattle and its quarterback, Charlie Whitehurst. Whether the defense played well or the Seahawks played poorly is a matter of perspective.

But the Browns' perspective came from a winning locker room, and from a coach who emphasizes the right thing – which is winning the game no matter how it's done. That attitude has not always been present in Cleveland the past dozen years, but it also might have something to do with the fact the Browns have found a way to overcome a struggling offense and struggling quarterback to get back to .500.

Keeping McCoy upright is top priority


Keeping Colt McCoy on his feet Sunday in San Francisco – and the rest of the season, for that matter – has become a high priority for the Browns.

McCoy has been sacked 13 times this season, an average of just over two sacks a game, but he has been hit 38 times.

Each time he stands up, adjusts his pads and either walks back to the huddle or to the sideline depending on the situation. He limped off with a knee injury in the third quarter Sunday but did not miss an offensive snap.

McCoy was knocked down 12 times in Oakland, then was sacked five times in last week's victory over the Seahawks.

"I got hit a few times," McCoy said. "I was able to run a couple times and get out of the pocket, but for the most part I thought we had some pretty good protection."

The offensive line's transformation has been as big as switching to the West Coast offense. The only starting linemen back from last year are left tackle Joe Thomas and center Alex Mack.

Jason Pinkston had to replace injured Eric Steinbach (back) at left guard, and now right guard Shawn Lauvao is day-to-day with a bruised knee. John Greco will start against the 49ers if Lauvao cannot play. Lauvao started one game last year.

Right tackle was a rotation of Oniel Cousins and Artis Hicks until Tony Pashos recovered from an ankle injury. Pashos started the last three games.

"When you look around the league, in terms of quarterbacks getting hit, there are quarterbacks getting hit quite a bit," Shurmur said. "(McCoy) has avoided some sacks. I try to make sure I call keeps and nakeds to make sure I get him on the run, and every once in a while he'll take (a hit) there."

Already this season, Raiders quarterback Jason Campbell was knocked out with a broken collarbone – by the Browns -- and Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne sustained a season-ending shoulder injury. Colts quarterback Kerry Collins was put on injured reserve Tuesday with post-concussion symptoms.

Tarvaris Jackson of the Seahawks missed the game against the Browns with a pectoral injury, and Sam Bradford of the Rams missed the game against the Cowboys on Sunday because of a high ankle sprain. The Rams (54), Seahawks (50) and Dolphins (48) have all allowed more quarterback hits than McCoy has endured. The 38 hits on McCoy are sixth-most in the league.

Another way to take heat off McCoy would be to run the ball efficiently, but the Browns can't do that when they play from behind as they did against Oakland and Tennessee. McCoy is averaging 42 passes a game.

Despite all that passing, McCoy is failing to find a rhythm. McCoy finished the victory over Seattle with a 59.0 passer rating, and that about sums up his game, which again consisted of underneath throws and short crossing routes.



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