A 49ers team that recently seemed to be trending upward turned due south Sunday against a Browns squad that had lost seven straight and entered the game with the worst record in the NFL.
The offense under quarterback Blaine Gabbert looked every bit as lifeless in the 24-10 loss as it did during Colin Kaepernick’s ugliest outings of the season in finishing with nine sacks allowed, tying a franchise record, and only two third-down conversions. The Browns, meanwhile, began the contest with the NFL’s 32nd-ranked ground offense but had 230 rushing yards and doubled their rushing touchdowns for the season with two short scores.
Afterward, there was an overwhelming sense that the 49ers took a giant step backward when they, not the Browns, looked like the league’s weakest team.
“Maybe we took them for granted; maybe we took them light,” outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks said. “ ... Getting the win last week, maybe we got a little big-headed this week and just thought that things were going to happen. But we won last week because everybody played hard.”
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“You can’t take anything lightly,” offensive left tackle Joe Staley said. “We’re not in a position to take anything lightly. You have to take it one week at a time and not (care) about records. We’re in a position where we have to play our (butts) off every week. And today we didn’t do that.”
Last week’s narrow win over the Bears was San Francisco’s first road victory of the season and the first game away from Levi’s Stadium in which the 49ers played with energy and pop from the opening kickoff. After the overtime win, the 49ers’ players danced and chanted in the Soldier Field visiting locker room as if they had advanced in the playoffs.
That energy was decidedly absent Sunday, and the team’s playoff chances – which, in all practicality, were gone many weeks ago – officially were dashed with the loss.
The 49ers’ problems started early when Browns running back Isaiah Crowell broke a 50-yard run on Cleveland’s second drive and then finished the possession with a one-yard touchdown run.
Crowell entered the game ranked 42nd in the league in rushing yards. He finished with 145 yards, 57 more than his previous career high. The 49ers began the game without two defensive starters – linebackers Michael Wilhoite and Aaron Lynch – but there were lapses throughout the unit, especially along the defensive line.
Jim Tomsula said afterward he was surprised by the lethargic start. As he’s said at other points this season, the 49ers practiced well during the week and had good emotion in Saturday’s walkthrough.
“It starts up front,” he said. “We didn’t block. Our line didn’t play well up front. We didn’t tackle well on defense, missed tackles. We were hitting with our shoulders, not wrapping up. ... We played a poor football game.”
Staley said it doesn’t matter how the team practices during the week.
“I just care about energy on Sundays,” he said. “I didn’t feel like it was where it needed to be.”
Still, the 49ers seemed to gain some momentum at the end of the first quarter. Nose tackle Ian Williams forced a fumble, and Brooks returned the loose ball to midfield. The offense, however, squandered the potentially game-turning play.
On fourth and one, the 49ers went with a bold call as tight end Blake Bell broke off from the line of scrimmage, catching the Browns’ defense unaware.
From that standpoint, it worked. There were no Browns between Bell and the end zone. But the man he initially was lined up against on the play, linebacker Nate Orchard, came free and sacked Gabbert before he could get rid of the ball.
Another potentially momentous play occurred in the second quarter with the Browns backed up against their goal line. Corey Lemonier sacked Johnny Manziel in the end zone for what would have been a safety. But the outside linebacker had grabbed Manziel’s face mask as he advanced, which instead gave Cleveland a first down.
After the game, inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman, one of the few holdovers from the 49ers’ recent standout defenses, was asked if he felt the team still was heading upward.
Yes, he said. But he also raised a point he’s discussed a number of times this season: The 49ers are young, inexperienced and don’t know how to win.
“I think the team’s going in the right direction,” Bowman said. “I think we fell short in the games that will get us over that hump and convince everyone that we are going in the right direction. You see it. You see the sparks. You see the talent that we have. But every game we get to where we can get over that hump, we fall short.”