Browns ripe for picking — can 49ers taste victory?

This is my Sunday column.

Five things to watch in Week 14 as the San Francisco 49ers continue their quest to finish 8-8:

1. Blaine Gabbert’s progress

Since Gabbert became the 49ers quarterback Week 9, San Francisco’s offense has averaged just 14.3 points per game (not including overtime). Not a lot of points.

But, that’s not a knock against Gabbert — he’s been facing good defenses. Last week, he faced the Chicago Bears, who have been on fire since their bye. The week before last, Gabbert faced the Arizona Cardinals, who rank fourth in points allowed per game. The week before that, Gabbert faced the Seattle Seahawks who rank third. And the week before that, Gabbert faced the Atlanta Falcons who rank 12th.

We didn’t expect Gabbert to throw dozens of touchdowns passes in those games, or even win those games. But, he won two. He gets credit.

This week, he finally faces an opponent he should feast on. The Cleveland Browns defense is giving up 28.9 points per game this season — second-worst in the NFL. Will Gabbert put up big numbers Sunday, or is 14.8 points his limit?

2. The 49ers’ pass rush

Think of Johnny Manziel as a boxer who has been knocked down twice already in one round. One more knockdown this round and the fight is over. It’s called the three knockdown rule.

That’s where Manziel is, trying to fight off his third knockdown. If he goes down and out, his whole career might be over.

He’s standing in the corner. His legs are wobbling. He doesn’t seem to know where he is or why he’s there. Breathe on him and he’ll go down.

Can the Niners breathe on him? Is their halitosis strong enough?

Yes, if they have outside linebacker Aaron Lynch. Lynch is the Niners’ best (only?) pass rusher, and one of the top pass rushers in the NFL. But, he suffered a concussion last week — actually appeared to lose consciousness on the field after teammate Quinton Dial nailed him in the side of the helmet.

Lynch practiced Friday, but not Wednesday or Thursday. The Niners list him as questionable for Sunday. If he can’t play, the Niners could be in trouble — Manziel’s passer rating is 93.8 when he’s not under pressure. He might avoid knockdown No. 3.

3. NaVorro Bowman’s pass coverage

This has been the most impressive season of NaVorro Bowman’s career.

It’s his first season back from a gruesome knee injury that would have ended most players’ careers, but not Bowman’s. Bowman is on pace to set a career high in tackles, and could win the Comeback Player of the Year Award. He is one of the bravest, most competitive athletes in sports. Not just football.

But, he has a weakness — pass coverage. Bowman used to cover running backs, tight ends, even some wide receivers, and he would shut them down. He moved like a defensive back.

Now, he moves like a guy who had a gruesome knee injury less than two years ago. He isn’t good at backpedaling and changing directions anymore. He’s good when the play is in front of him.

Sunday, he has to cover rookie running back Duke Johnson, who has made 48 catches this season. Only four running backs have made more catches than Johnson.

You bet the Browns will go after Bowman on pass plays. Can Bowman keep up?

4. The team’s energy

The rest of the season is a tryout for head coach Jim Tomsula. If he coaches well, he almost certainly will be 49ers’ head coach again next season. But if the Niners lose to the Browns, all bets are off.

Oddsmakers think the Niners will lose. According to, the Browns are 1.5-point favorites despite being the worst team in the NFL.

Why are they the favorite? Because they’re playing at home, and their opponent is 1-5 on the road. San Francisco has played hard in just one road game this season — last week against the Bears.

This week, the Niners have to fly back across the country, past the Central Time Zone and all the way to the Eastern Time Zone. That’s tiring, especially for a team with nothing to play for other than saving the head coach’s job.

Will the Niners play for Tomsula this week?

5. Trent Baalke’s young players

If the rest of the season is a tryout for Tomsula, it’s also a tryout for general manager Trent Baalke.

Eight of Baalke’s draft picks the past two years either will start or play significant roles against the Browns: center Marcus Martin, cornerback Kenneth Acker, nickelback Jimmie Ward, tight end Blake Bell, safety Jaquiski Tartt, outside linebacker Eli Harold, defensive end Arik Armstead and punter Bradley Pinion.

If those eight play well, the Niners will have a promising future which Baalke will be part of. If those eight don’t play well, the Niners may ax Baalke and not Tomsula.

Big game.

Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at

Stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus.

      1. He was injured his rookie year in limited action and injured again this year. Not ready to call him a bust yet, but next season is make or break . Also, niners need a plan B just in case.

    1. Hey Nick,

      I think you don’t have it right. The kid (Hyde) plays hard and strong, runs through opposing players and finds the extra yards everytime. Plays with passion and gusto. I wouldn’t hold this injury over him although look at it has an opportunity for him to come back healthy while allowing auditions for other players like Draughn who has been playing well.

  1. I wonder if Tank will start getting more reps at DE in 4-man fronts this week, if Lynch is limited/ doesn’t play? Saw a photo of him this week (posted by Matt Barrows I believe) and he is looking a lot trimmer.

  2. Talented pass rushers usually show up early on. I’m hoping to see Eli Harold show us something tomorrow. If I don’t see him getting pressure at some point before the season’s over, he could be Lemonier 2.0.

    By all accounts he’s a hard worker and gifted athlete. But his MLB weight doesn’t match his OLB length. I’m not sure how he fits. He could star in some other defense.

    1. I’m sure some will tack this up to me trying to back up my boasts of him before the season began but I’m willing to hold off on judging Harold’s struggles this year. If it’s truly from a lack of strength then it’s worth waiting to see what another 10 months of NFL training will do for his body and physicality. He might just need a bit more time to bloom and transition to the next level. Or he might just be a third round bust. Either way if we’re saying the same thing about him this time next year I’ll be leaning more towards the latter.

      1. I’m not a fan of writing any player off after their rookie season, no matter how bad. Harold’s rookie season has been disappointing in that he hasn’t wowed anyone with his pass rush and can be a bit of a liability in the run game at this point, but he’s also shown the coaching staff enough to earn game time. That experience will be a good thing for him.

        1. A lot of folks wrote off Jerry Rice after his first few games. He couldn’t catch the ball and never would learn, etc, etc, etc. Then, after he had played long enough to start breaking records, some of them switched to not liking his personality, or his hair, or the way he dressed, or whatever.

          1. Lowell Cohn was ripping Walsh for moving up in the draft to pick a small college player after the first couple games, but then JR took off.

  3. The Browns offensive line will Binaca the 49ers halitosis. Bowman couldn’t cover Vereen, so don’t expect me to believe he can cover Johnson. Martin has been an abysmal disappointment, along with Harold. Not expecting much from those two. Is Tank part of the future arsenal or is he another dud like Lemonier? I expect the team to come out sluggish and slowly build up some momentum late. As long as Chryst runs the offensive show, I do not expect much more in the way of points. I think the Browns hold on to win a close one….

    1. I hadn’t looked into the Browns much until now. They have the 13th ranked passing offense, their terrible at scoring and the worst at running the ball. Their slightly better in pass defense than us and slightly worse than us at run defense. Manziel is the key for sure. Gabbert should look pretty good against this defense but we’re down to our 4th string and PS TE’s. Miller could help. If Lynch isn’t a go they’ll have to play a contain strategy to keep Manziel in the pocket. The defense could win this one for us if they show up like last week.

        1. I think the pass rush will decide the outcome. If the Niners can get to Manziel. it will be relatively easy. If he has time to throw, it will be tightly contested.

  4. It’s probably pointless to point out this point.

    “Oddsmakers think the Niners will lose.” … Grant

    The Odds makers are only interested in balancing their book. Cleavland’s fans have bet a bit more money on their team than the 49er fans. The odds makers follow the money, not the football.

  5. In April i’ll be spending 5 nights in New Orleans. I’ve have 3 of those night’s dinners already planned; CP, Gautreau’s and Irene’s Cuisine. Looking for suggestions for the other 2 dinners.

    1. Is Gautreau’s Matt Maiocco’s barbecued shrimp place? If not I’d check out his interview with Kawakami for the name or go there twice.

    2. Best places to eat in N.O.
      1) Langiois….Cajun and Creole
      2) Shaya…..Mediteranian
      3) GW Fins….Seafood
      4) Upperline Restaurant….Cajun and Creole

      Fun places to eat in N.O. (lunch)
      1) Alberto’s cheese and wine bistro….Spanish
      2) Orleans grapevine wine bar and bistro (lunch)
      Good luck….enjoy a N.O. gastric delight

    3. Jimmy T would recommend Little Caesars. He’s always trying to get my dad to go in with him on a second franchise in Stockton…

  6. I almost forgot. Tonight’s Heisman Trophy night. The annual ceremony to picking the most inspirational college football player (outside the Pacific Time Zone).

    A nation waits with baited breath to know which Southern, Northeastern or Midwestern candidate will be chosen.

        1. We have a split family. Our youngest (45) went to Cal. I delete the big game the week after it’s been played out of respect to his tender feelings of inferiority.

    1. Its Derrick Henry. Congratulations. I know nothing about him, but I bet he’s a dang good college football player.

  7. Grant, what was that tweet a response to earlier today? I couldn’t find anything what you were referring to.

    1. My dad is thinking of opening a bait shop in Walker Minnesota. He thinks he can catch on as an analyst with the Big Ten network. He looks the part, don’t you think?

  8. Didn’t you hear? Your father is going back to Bemidji College, that football powerhouse, and will resurrect that program. Marathe gets to sit next to him in the press box and use his analytics when they play Notre Dame.Those Beavers are looking impressive.

    1. Watch it with the Beaver remark… Bemidji wanted him, yes, but being in the bait business is more stable, especially when one works as a part-time analyst. He’ll do that virtually from the basement. Marathe? That looser is no longer in the bait shop plan.

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