For the first three quarters of the season the Browns offense was pulling the train by itself. Derek Anderson is as capable as ever of launching three, four or five touchdown passes against the 49ers Sunday in Cleveland Browns Stadium, but it is the defense that has gradually become a force.
Opponents have been held under 20 points in four of the last five games -- a 27-17 victory over the Texans, a 24-18 win over the Jets and an 8-0 shutout of the Bills last week in a blizzard, and a 19-14 loss to the Bengals. The only opponent to score more than 20 over the last month was Arizona. The Browns lost 27-21, though all 27 points cannot be pinned on the defense; an interception thrown by Anderson was returned for a touchdown and a muffed punt by Joshua Cribbs led to another Cardinals touchdown.
It was just the opposite at the beginning of the season; opponents scored 20 or more points nine times in 10 games. Because of the slow start the defense still ranks last in the NFL. The statistic is based on yards allowed.
The 49ers have not had the season they hoped for. They have experienced quarterback issues, starting with Alex Smith and then Trent Dilfer and finally Shaun Hill. The Browns have respect for Hill, who ran for a touchdown and threw a touchdown pass in a 20-13 victory over the Bengals Dec. 15 and then beat Tampa Bay, 21-19, in the next game.
The 49ers are riding a streak of 29 games without one of their receivers posting a 100-yard game. For more reasons than one, the Browns would like to make that streak continue; running back Frank Gore already presents a challenge. If the Browns can keep Hill and the pass offense under wraps they should be able to send Sean Jones into the box to help stop Gore.
"This is why you work," defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. "This is why you do the OTAs, to put yourself in the situation to go out and play the game. We're taking it as the next game. You have to be solid in your defense."
Oddly, the game against the 49ers will have no affect on the Browns' playoff chances unless the Titans and Colts tie. If the Colts win, the Browns are in the playoffs. If the Titans win, the Browns' season will end Sunday.
Six of the seven longest passes the Browns have allowed occurred in the first half of the season. Grantham said one reason the defense has improved is receivers are not getting behind safeties Sean Jones and Brodney Pool. That improvement has coincided with an improved pass rush. The Browns, 9-5, had seven sacks after eight games. They have 16 sacks over the last six.
"I think we've been playing pretty well all year," middle linebacker Andra Davis said. "We started off slowly, but we've been making plays when we needed to all year. People tend to forget that."
When the Bengals scored 19 points they scored one touchdown on a five-yard drive and one on a 20-yard drive, both after interceptions thrown by Anderson.