Big plays separate good football teams from bad football teams, contending teams from pretending teams, and great teams from those that yearn for and only dream of greatness.
And so it goes for the San Francisco 49ers, who have risen this season into one of those categories. The right one; the one that propels them on the path toward greatness.
And so it goes for the Cleveland Browns, who also fall into one of those categories. The wrong one; the one that propels them so far beneath mediocrity, it becomes an annual challenge as they strive to be at least competitive.
Big plays were on display Sunday afternoon by the Bay in San Francisco as the 49ers continued their surprise run toward the playoffs with a much-easier-than-it-sounds 20-10 victory over the Browns.
It was one big play after another as the 49ers coasted to their sixth victory in seven games, sending the Browns back to Cleveland with its second Bay area loss in two weeks.
It didn’t take long for the 49ers to dip into their big-play bag. It started with a strip sack of Cleveland quarterback Colt McCoy on the second play of the game, proceeded to ripping off large chunks of yardage on the ground and also included the usage of offensive and defensive linemen in the passing game.
Secreting their creative juices, the 49ers leaned heavily on big plays in big moments in an effort to demonstrate why they should be considered serious contenders.
It started when Isaac Sopoaga and all of his 330 pounds landed on McCoy’s fumble after 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks caused body-ball separation against the overmatched Cleveland offensive line. That was just the beginning for the big Hawaiian.
All afternoon, the 49ers brought in an extra offensive lineman or Sopoaga as extra blockers, determined to control the ball and allow quarterback Alex Smith to manage the game. In other words, limit the number of times he threw the ball.
The Browns are not capable to such a philosophy because their west coast offense is predicated on a pass-first philosophy to set up the running game. Another problem is they don’t have the talent to pull it off.
The Niners’ linemen – Sopoaga, a defensive tackle, and starting offensive tackle Joe Staley – did more than just block as San Francisco split their 348 total yards right down the middle.
They also contributed to the passing game, each catching a pass with both grabs leading to David Akers’ two field goals. Imagine that. Using 645 pounds of talent to catch passes.
Think creativity like that exists in Cleveland? Don’t answer. That was a rhetorical question.
The 49ers, taking the big-play cue from their defense, moved the ball with ease in the first half as they built a 17-3 lead with Frank Gore ripping off several long runs as his offensive line opened massive holes. The Niners had half a dozen plays of 20 yards or more.
The Browns, meanwhile, owned the ball for just 11 minutes in the first half and accumulated a robust 93 total yards on offense. It took a 51-yard Phil Dawson field goal on the last play of the half to get on the scoreboard.
If it hadn’t been for a staunch goal-line stand by the Browns early in the second quarter, and the notion San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh appeared to take his foot off the pedal in the second half, the 49ers would have turned this one into a rout.
The recurring theme this season has been the Browns’ inability to start games strong. It’s almost as though they come into them totally unprepared. There is little defense against that argument given the club’s problems in putting up points in the first 15 minutes.
That responsibility rests on the shoulders of the head coach. Not his assistants. All they can do is prepare their men to play solid fundamental football. The emotional approach belongs to the coach or one of the players. Since the Browns seem to lack that emotional leader on either side of the ball, that job lands squarely in Shurmur’s lap.
So far, the Browns have played seven games. And in each one of them, they have come out supremely flat, especially on offense. There is total lack of urgency. And who is responsible for the Cleveland offense? Never mind. Another rhetorical question.
Most offensive coordinators like to script the first 15 or 20 plays of a game. Considering what we’ve seen thus far from Shurmur this season, time to burn that script.
Speaking of burning, Shurmur tried to get cute on the first series of the second half on a third-and-2 at the San Francisco 42 and it took him out of possible field-goal range.
He had wide receiver Greg Little line up initially in the slot, then shift into the backfield at the tail of an I formation. At the snap, McCoy threw Little a swing pass that was more of a backward pass.
It was a play the Browns had never used before and probably designed to take advantage of Little’s ability to make something out of nothing when running with the ball. But Shurmur did not count on a blown assignment on the offensive line and 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis dropped Little for an eight-yard loss.
That’s one play that needs to be exorcised from the playbook because the Browns are incapable of executing it.
Sycophant Browns fans will write this one off as just one of those days. If they were a good team, perhaps that would pass the sniff test. But they are not a good team. Not even close.
The schedule does not get any easier from here on out. How much longer will it take before those sycophants begin to see the real picture?
Unless Shurmur has been keeping the real Cleveland Browns under wraps, the answer to that question is soon. Very soon.