49ers, Browns become contenders after years of losing
By JOSH DUBOW AP Pro Football Writer
SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — Three straight wins to open the season haven’t erased all the doubts that four years of losing created for the San Francisco 49ers.
There was an ugly win over a perceived also-run in Tampa Bay, a blowout against overmatched Cincinnati and then a mistake-filled victory over Pittsburgh and backup quarterback Mason Rudolph.
Now the degree of difficulty starts to get much more difficult, starting with Monday night’s home game against a Cleveland Browns team that has shown early signs of being a legitimate contender in the AFC North.
“A lot of people on this team don’t get credit they deserve, so Monday we’re going to showcase that,” 49ers receiver Marquise Goodwin said.
Skepticism surrounding the 49ers (3-0) and Browns (2-2) is warranted based on the recent history. The two franchises were the bottom two in the league over the previous four seasons, with Cleveland winning a league-low 11 games in that span and San Francisco not far ahead with only 17.
While a healthy Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback and a vastly improved defense have transformed the 49ers, the Browns have been a bit more inconsistent this season alternating losses with wins.
But they are hoping last week’s 40-25 win at Baltimore is a sign of how a star-studded roster led by second-year quarterback Baker Mayfield, dynamic playmakers Odell Beckham Jr. and Nick Chubb, and dominant force Myles Garrett can be different than past Browns teams.
“We came out with a big win this past weekend, and I feel that just the energy is different,” defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi said. “You can tell the guys are really fully buying into what we have going on in here and know that everything we want is in front of us. We just have to keep working.”
Here are some other things to watch:
Chubb’s breakout game _ and breakaway speed _ helped the Browns snap out of their early season offensive funk and push past the Ravens last week. Chubb ran for 165 yards, 88 coming on a jaw-dropping touchdown run in which he was clocked at 21.95 mph, the fastest speed on a touchdown in the NFL this season.
The second-year back, who rushed for 996 yards as a rookie, could be Cleveland’s best player. Coach Freddie Kitchens feels Chubb embodies everything the Browns are looking for.
“Every time the clock starts turning, you know what you are going to get from him,” Kitchens said. “After all of that, you throw in his ability, his skillset, his desire inside within to be successful and his resilient nature and chasing being good. I do not know what else you want in a football player.”
ON AN ISLAND
The 49ers suffered a significant loss in their latest win with a foot injury that will sideline cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon for at least a month. Witherspoon had been one of the bright spots for San Francisco this season as he bounced back from a rough second year. His injury will likely force Emmanuel Moseley into the starting lineup for the first time in his career. The Niners typically don’t have top cornerback Richard Sherman follow No. 1 receivers, meaning Cleveland could force Moseley to match up often with Beckham.
“I’m excited for him,” Sherman said. “He’s an unknown to these people. And he won’t be after this game. I think it will be a positive experience.”
Beckham came to Cleveland with a reputation as being selfish. Last week, he showed he’s a team player. The Browns star made several key blocks last week in Baltimore, picking off or shielding defenders downfield on several long plays. The three-time Pro Bowler may be best known for his one-handed catches and fashion choices, but Kitchens said Beckham’s willingness to do whatever’s necessary is a sign that he’s bought into Cleveland’s program.
GO TO SKULE
The other major injury the 49ers are dealing with is at left tackle, where veteran Joe Staley will miss at least six weeks with a broken leg. Rookie Justin Skule held his own in his first start two weeks ago against Pittsburgh and Bud Dupree. But he will have a much tougher task this week against Garrett, the No. 1 overall pick in 2017 who has six sacks through four games.
The Browns are 2-0 on the road for the first time since 1994, when they won their first three games outside Cleveland. That’s an impressive jump for a team that didn’t win any games _ home or away _ just two years ago. It’s been a challenging start to the season for the Browns, who will be playing in their third prime-time game in five weeks.
“Anytime you leave Cleveland, it is difficult,” Kitchens said. “You mentioned the length of travel, and that adds another piece of adversity. A Monday night game adds another piece of adversity _ more attention. This team is doing a lot of things for the first time. I think they have handled it very well.”
A few eyebrows were raised around the league in the 2017 offseason when the Niners gave fullback Kyle Juszczyk a $21 million, four-year contract in an era when many teams have gone away from two-back sets. But Juszczyk is a key part of coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense, allowing him to dictate matchups. That was clearly the case in San Francisco’s most recent game two weeks ago against Pittsburgh. He made a diving 27-yard catch, stiff-armed Minkah Fitzpatrick to the ground on a 22-yard catch and run, added one more short reception and strong run-blocking in a performance that garnered more attention than usual to a player who only touches the ball a handful of times a game.
“When he makes some plays like that in the pass game, I think he gets a little more credit and it’s deserved,” Shanahan said.
AP Sports Writer Tom Withers in Berea, Ohio, contributed to this report
More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL