It ranks fourth overall in the NFL — the AFC North occupies the top four spots — and second against the pass. The Browns allowed just 137 yards and two first downs, forced two turnovers and had three sacks last week in a 6-3 win over Seattle.
No one expected such impressive numbers from a unit starting two rookies on the defensive line, with a supposed depth problem and making the conversion from a 3-4 to 4-3 scheme.
Well, maybe not no one.
“Every year that I’ve been in the league, the goal was always to be No. 1,” free safety Mike Adams said. “When you work so hard and get to that point, you don’t want to say, ‘Oh, I’m surprised I’m here.’ That’s what we worked for, that’s what we want.”
The Browns (3-3) have been able to blend the youth of four starters in their first or second seasons with the experience of the linebacking corps and cornerback Sheldon Brown. Overseeing the delicate operation is sage defensive coordinator Dick Jauron.
He’s a Yale graduate, former player and two-time head coach. Where Rob Ryan brought bluster, boasts and bold predictions to the job the last two seasons, Jauron brings patience, wisdom and thoughtfulness.
“He’s a little man with a big presence,” Adams said. “When he comes into the room, everybody knows it’s him and everybody knows he’s speaking. Even though he’s quiet and humble about a lot of stuff, he has a big presence.”
“His demeanor never changes,” linebacker Scott Fujita said. “Win, lose, play good, play bad, he’s going to be the same guy, he’s going to coach us the same way.
“He’s a great teacher, and I always talk about the plan he had for us for no offseason. It’s finding ways to get everybody to play fast and to play confident. We don’t have to do a bunch of trick stuff and have a bunch of exotic schemes every week.”
The second-ranked pass defense (172.0 yards per game) is led on the backend by cornerback Joe Haden, who’s playing at a Pro Bowl level and showed toughness by missing only one game with a sprained knee. Safety T.J. Ward is coming on in his second season, and nickelback Dimitri Patterson has been a pleasant surprise.
“We’ve got a secondary that challenges, and I think that’s important,” said coach Pat Shurmur, who’s used a ton of man-to-man coverage.
The secondary has benefited from a solid pass rush. The Browns have 16 sacks — fourth in the league per pass play — most coming from the front four.
Defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin leads the way with three sacks, rookie end Jabaal Sheard has 2½, rookie tackle Phil Taylor two and end Jayme Mitchell 1½. Linebackers D’Qwell Jackson (2½) and Chris Gocong (1½) also chip in.
The numbers against the run aren’t as sterling — No. 19 with 119 yards a game — but the run defense has been solid overall and a vast improvement from past versions. Rubin and Taylor are stout at the point of attack, and Jackson has been a tackle machine.
The run defense will get perhaps its greatest challenge of the season today with the 49ers (5-1) and running back Frank Gore. The Niners are first in the NFL in rushing in October, averaging 193.3 yards per game, and use multiple personnel packages that pose problems.
Gore has 541 rushing yards, four touchdowns and a 5.0 average. He has 15 rushes of at least 10 yards (seventh in the NFL) and three straight games with 125 yards and a touchdown.
“He has a very low center of gravity,” Jauron said. “He doesn’t give you a lot of hittable surface. He’s got great balance and is very tough. He’s just a terrific inside runner, always has been. He is hard to knock off his feet.”
Since 2006, Gore ranks second in the NFL with 8,570 yards from scrimmage (6,347 rushing, 2,223 receiving). He needs 110 rushing yards to move past Roger Craig (7,064) into second place in 49ers history.
“You’ve got to get a lot of people to the ball and they’ve got to really want to tackle,” Jauron said.
Ward said the Browns fit the description.
“I don’t think anyone on our defense is afraid to do anything,” he said. “That’s what I love about our defense, we got a bunch of dogs out there. We’re all scrappy, we all can make plays, we’re all physical. Not a weak link on the team.”
Life is about to get harder for the defense, and it will be tough to maintain its ranking. San Francisco has a changed man in quarterback Alex Smith and a pair of standout tight ends in Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker. The schedule will also get more difficult.
“I feel like there’s no reason that we can’t go into every game and expect to have a very fine defensive performance,” Shurmur said. “You like to think that they’ll build on that confidence.”
“Hell, yeah, we can get better,” Adams said. “Hell, yeah.
“We can get more picks, I gotta catch ‘em. We can get more sacks, we can get more pressures, we can tackle better. We can do a lot of things better.”
It’s not in Jauron’s personality to make premature or outlandish pronunciations or guarantees. He simply likes what he’s seen so far and loves the group he’s been given.
“They are a really good group of guys,” he said. “They work hard. I think they are serious about it, they want to be good.
“It’s not always pretty, but they’re tough. I really like them.”
“Have you ever seen young guys act more mature and step up to the challenge?” Adams said. “I think that’s what makes it special, the young guys.
It’s not me, it’s not Sheldon, it’s not Fujita, it’s the young guys, the approach to the game they have. We’re leading by example, but they’re actually following.”
The Browns are 3-3 for just the third time since 1999 and a win would match the best start since 1999 (2001, ’07). The 49ers have won four straight — their only loss was in overtime to Dallas — are coming off a bye and rank fifth in points scored with 27.8 a game.
The Browns are trying to hold a second straight opponent to 150 yards or less for the first time since 1954.
“They have a very salty defense,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. “They are very aggressive on the backend, are very talented and very experienced.”
“They’re 5-1. We can come in, bust their bubble a little bit, get us to 4-3,” Ward said. “I think we’ve got a really good team. We’re just growing, getting a lot better.”
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BROWNS VS. 49ERS
• RECORDS: Browns 3-3; 49ers 5-1
• LAST WEEK: Browns beat the Seahawks 6-3; 49ers had bye
• SERIES: Browns lead 11-6
• SERIES AT SAN FRANCISCO: Browns lead 5-4
• LAST MEETING: Browns won 20-7 on Dec. 30, 2007, in Cleveland
• COACHES: Pat Shurmur is 3-3 with Browns and overall; Jim Harbaugh is 5-1 with 49ers and overall
• TV/RADIO: Channel 19, with broadcasters Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts; WMMS 100.7-FM, WTAM 1100-AM
• NFL RANKINGS (OUT OF 32 TEAMS): Browns — Offense 23rd (29th rushing, 22nd passing), defense 4th (19th rushing, 2nd passing); 49ers — Offense 27th (6th rushing, 31st passing), defense 11th (2nd rushing, 22nd passing)
• Rookie WR Greg Little is tied for second among NFL rookies with 25 catches. He has 17 catches over the last three games.
• CB Sheldon Brown got his first interception of the year last week, the 22nd of his career.
• S Mike Adams spent three seasons (2004-06) with the 49ers.
• Browns are in the Bay Area for the second time in three weeks. They lost to Oakland 24-17 on Oct. 16.
• Browns have won three straight against the NFC.
• Cleveland held the ball for 42:56 against Seattle, its highest mark since the NFL began tracking time of possession in 1977.
• Newly acquired RB Chris Ogbonnaya led the team with 43 receiving yards last week and tied for the lead with five catches.
• DT Ahtyba Rubin leads the Browns with three sacks.
• LB Scott Fujita is tied for third on the team with 26 tackles despite being inactive last week. He will start today.
• President Mike Holmgren, a native of San Francisco, was an offensive coach with the 49ers from 1986-91.
• Senior adviser Gil Haskell spent 22 years with the 49ers
• DL coach Dwaine Board spent 23 years with San Francisco as a player and coach.
• WR coach Mike Wilson played 10 seasons for the 49ers.
• Browns are 3-0 with a positive turnover ratio.
• Over the last three games, the Browns have converted 46.7 percent on third down, compared to 35.7 in the first three games.
• Harbaugh played 15 seasons in the NFL and was AFC offensive player of the year in 1995, when he led the league with a 100.7 rating.
• 49ers are tied for third in the league with a plus-8 turnover differential. They are third in the NFC with 14 takeaways.
• They have a three-game lead in the NFC West.
• A win would make San Francisco 6-1 for the first time since 1998.
• CB Carlos Rogers has three interceptions, 22 tackles and eight passes defensed.
• Special teams ace Blake Costanzo played with Cleveland in 2009-10. He leads the 49ers with seven special teams tackles.
• 49ers have outscored their opponents 167-97, ranking fourth in point differential.
• They’ve started 15 drives in the opponents’ territory, first in the NFL.
• OL Alex Boone, WR Ted Ginn Jr. and S Donte Whitner are Cleveland natives and attended Ohio State.
• WR Braylon Edwards holds Cleveland’s record with 16 receiving touchdowns in a season, 2007. Since 2005, his 15.7-yard average per catch ranks second in the NFL for those with at least 325 catches. He has four catches for 48 yards this year and has been out since Week 2.
• 49ers defense has allowed just nine touchdowns, ranking second. It’s first in the red zone, allowing TDs on six of 19 trips.
• BROWNS INJURY REPORT: Out: DE Auston English (knee), WR Mohamed Massaquoi (concussion); Questionable: CB Joe Haden (knee), RB Peyton Hillis (hamstring), RG Shawn Lauvao (knee), LB Kaluka Maiava (knee), RT Tony Pashos (ankle), S Ray Ventrone (hamstring), TE Benjamin Watson (concussion); Probable: K Phil Dawson (right thigh), LB Scott Fujita (concussion), OL Artis Hicks (back), CB Buster Skrine (hip)
• 49ERS INJURY REPORT: Doubtful: CB Tramaine Brock (hand), FB Moran Norris (fibula); Questionable: WR Braylon Edwards (knee); Probable: WR Michael Crabtree (foot), CB Chris Culliver (shoulder), C Jonathan Goodwin (concussion), LB Parys Haralson (hamstring), G Adam Snyder (stinger), CB Shawntae Spencer (toe)