CLEVELAND (AP)As Myles Garrett left Cleveland Browns Stadium, the All-Pro defensive end had an autographed jersey given to him by San Francisco’s All-Pro left tackle Trent Williams draped over his right shoulder.
Call it a big game trophy.
Cleveland’s tenacious defense is collecting them.
The Browns took down one of the NFL’s top teams Sunday, limiting the 49ers’ potent offense to just 215 yards – their fewest in 104 games under coach Kyle Shanahan – while ending San Francisco’s regular-season winning streak at 15 and rattling quarterback Brock Purdy in his first loss as a starter.
San Francisco came averaging 33.4 points per game, and the Niners were flying high after thrashing Dallas a week ago.
The Browns knocked them back a peg or two.
Sure, it took a missed field goal in the final seconds to seal Cleveland’s 19-17 win, and the 49ers were without dynamic playmakers Christian McCaffrey and Deebo Samuel for most of the second half. But the Browns (3-2), despite some major injuries and self-inflicted drama surrounding quarterback Deshaun Watson’s bruised shoulder, found a way.
They’re playing like contenders, and their top-ranked defense is setting the tone.
Through five games, the Browns have allowed fewer yards (1,002) than any team since 1971. Only the the ’71 Baltimore Colts (836) and 1970 Minnesota Vikings (945) – the famed Purple People Eaters – yielded less than this Cleveland defense.
Fiery first-year coordinator Jim Schwartz has adjusted Cleveland’s defensive schemes and the team’s attitude.
Not only does Schwartz have the Browns playing at a high level and celebrating every tackle, deflection and sack as if they won the Super Bowl, he has got them believing they can take it up another notch.
“We say it all the time,” cornerback Greg Newsome II said. “We’re the best in the world as a defense.”
Schwartz spent part of the week preparing Cleveland’s defense for the 49ers by showing the Browns some famous boxing matches, including Ali-Frazier and Hagler-Hearns. Schwartz wanted his players to be able to punch and counter punch anything San Francisco might throw at them.
He expected a fight, and got one.
However, Schwartz couldn’t have known it would start in pregame warmups when the Browns took exception to some trash talk and taunting from the Niners as dozens of players scuffled near San Francisco’s sideline.
“Those guys just came out trying to be disrespectful,” said cornerback Denzel Ward. “We just got zero tolerance level for disrespect. They wanted to make it a fist fight and we’re going to come out swinging.”
Cornerback Martin Emerson Jr., who intercepted Purdy in the third quarter, said the Niners picked on the wrong team.
“Don’t poke the bear,” he said. ”Don’t get us started. We don’t take any disrespect.”
The Browns took their emotions out on Purdy, who came in with the league’s best rating (123.1) but went just 12 for 27 for 125 yards and was sacked three times. The 23-year-old felt the sting of defeat for the first time as a pro.
And while it felt like a statement to the rest of the league, Garrett insists the Browns aren’t trying to prove themselves to anyone.
“We know who we are,” he said. “And we’re going to continue to ball.”
Concerns were eased that Cleveland’s running game would disintegrate after star back Nick Chubb suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 2.
Despite not having All-Pro left guard Joel Bitonio, the Browns rushed for 160 yards and showed some imagination with mis-directions and reverses. Cleveland’s lone touchdown came on a 16-yard run after tight end Harrison Bryant took the snap and pitched the ball to Kareem Hunt.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
As great as it has been, Cleveland’s defense needs to force more turnovers.
The Browns were the first team to intercept Purdy this season, but Cleveland again lost the turnover battle and is now minus-8 in differential this season.
Penalties were also a problem Sunday as the Browns committed a season-high 13 for 119 yards. Two personal fouls helped the Niners score a TD on their opening drive.
It would have been foolish to expect quarterback P.J. Walker to come off Cleveland’s practice squad and outplay Purdy, an early season MVP candidate.
But that’s exactly what the 28-year-old did while filling in for Watson. Walker made just enough plays to lead the Browns to the shocking win. Walker got away with a couple ill-advised throws, but he also rebounded from a late interception to lead the Browns on two late drives that led to field goals.
If Watson misses more time, Walker has at least shown the Browns he can get the job done.
Each week, fourth-year wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones seems to have a lesser role in Cleveland’s offense.
He was targeted just once Sunday and didn’t have a catch. Through five games, he has only six receptions for 75 yards. Also, he was replaced as Cleveland’s primary punt returner by Jaelon Darden, who was elevated from the practice squad.
Watson missed his second straight game with a bruised rotator cuff, and it’s not yet known if he’ll be available this week. Coach Kevin Stefanski was purposely vague on whether Watson will practice Wednesday. … Bitonio is expected back after having an arthroscopic procedure on his knee during the bye week. His 102-game starting streak ended. … Starting LB and co-captain Anthony Walker Jr. is in concussion protocol. … Michael Dunn, who did a solid job filling in for Bitonio, injured a calf.
52 – League-low first downs yielded by the Browns. Dallas was a distant second with 81 heading into its Monday night game.
After playing four of their first five games at home, the Browns hit the road for just the second time Sunday at Indianapolis.
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