For the second time in three weeks, the Cleveland Browns will head west to play ball in the Bay Area. The Browns come in to the Week 8 matchup with the 49ers toting a 3-3 record, off the heels of a hard-fought 6-3 win over the Seattle Seahawks.
Looking ahead to this week’s tilt, Browns coach Pat Shurmur said the 49ers strength starts in the middle of their defense with inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman.
“They can run,” Shurmur said in a conference call with the Bay Area media on Wednesday. “They do a good job of going sideline-to-sideline to make tackles, but they also fit downhill very well when you run right at them. That’s a pretty darn good tandem of inside linebackers.”
Aside from Bowman and Willis, Shurmur was also quick to praise the new weapons on the 49ers defense, which has given up an average of 16.2 points per game, good for second-best in the NFL. Shurmur noted the quick development of rookie linebacker Aldon Smith and said veteran free agent addition Carlos Rogers is playing “as well as he ever has.”
Shurmur said the Browns will need a solid performance out of left tackle Joe Thomas, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, and the rest of his offensive line on Sunday.
“We’re going to get challenged this week, for sure,” Shurmur said. “Our guys are well aware of how the Niners are built and how talented and how explosive they can be.”
Dating back to their college days as enemies in the Big 10, Shurmur and 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh are familiar foes. In fact, Shurmur is also familiar with Harbaugh’s father, Jack, and coached with Harbaugh’s brother, John, on the Philadelphia Eagles staff in recent years. But as Shurmur said, his existing relationship with Harbaugh won’t mean much once kick-off comes around.
Shurmur said running back Peyton Hillis will practice this week and is expected to start on Sunday if healthy. Hillis, who has 211 rushing yards through four games this year, missed last week’s contest with a hamstring injury.
“I expect he’ll be back,” Shurmur said. “He’s a full-go.”
While Hillis may be the team’s biggest threat on offense, Cleveland return man Josh Cribbs will also demand plenty of attention on Sunday. Throughout his seven-year career, Cribbs has established himself as one of the NFL’s most dangerous returners.
Cribbs is familiar with 49ers special teams coordinator Brad Seely, as Seely coached in Cleveland the past two seasons, and said he expects his former coach to challenge his abilities.
“He has a great coverage unit,” Cribbs said. “They really have a good net (punting average) and a way of covering punts, top of the league. I think they’re going to use the experience that they have with Brad and the guys on special teams against us and punt the ball and kick the ball away to us.”
Cribbs said he’s also looking forward to competing against former teammate and current 49ers special teams standout Blake Costanzo. Cribbs said the two are still close friends and speak regularly.
“He’s an animal,” Cribbs said. “He’s going to play in this league a long time just because of his special teams capabilities alone. He’s what every special teams player needs to be: high-motor guy, always has a nose for the football.”
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