Now we know what the 49ers worked on during “improvement week”: getting their big men into the passing game.
San Francisco came off its bye week to beat Cleveland 20-10 Sunday at Candlestick Park, winning its fifth straight game while getting off to a 6-1 start for the first time since 1998.
In doing so, the Niners pulled a couple of rabbits – or, more accurately, elephants -- out of their hats to subdue the Browns.
In the first quarter, after offensive tackle Joe Staley reported in as an eligible receiver, Alex Smith connected with the former college tight end for a 17-yard gain and a first down at the Browns' 48. It helped the 49ers keep a drive alive that began at their own 1-yard line and culminated in a David Akers 29-yard field goal that gave San Francisco a 10-0 lead.
Then in the fourth quarter, Isaac Sopoaga – by trade the team’s starting nose tackle – rumbled 18 yards with a Smith pass after also reporting in as an eligible tight end, down to the Cleveland 32 as part of an 11-play drive that ended with Akers’ 26-yard field goal to give the 49ers a 20-10 lead with two minutes to go.
It was a key drive for San Francisco, which had performed well offensively in the first half to build a 17-3 lead, but then stalled in the second half.
In the first half, the 49ers used the running of Frank Gore (who had his fourth 100-yard rushing game in a row, with 134) and Smith’s passing (10-of-13 in the half) to control the game. Smith was moving the ball, hitting Braylon Edwards, back in the lineup after a four-game absence, and Michael Crabtree. Gore also passed Roger Craig to become the franchise’s No. 2 all-time rusher (behind Joe Perry).
Gore gave the 49ers a 7-0 lead with a 4-yard run, set up when Ahmad Brooks sacked and stripped Cleveland quarterback Colt McCoy, with Sopoaga recovering. Crabtree extended the lead to 17-0 in the second quarter when he caught his first TD pass of the year, a 2-yarder from Smith.
But in the second half, the 49ers’ offense went dormant, going three-and-out on four of their five second-half possessions.
After the Browns scored on a 45-yard pass play from McCoy to Joe Cribbs to cut the Niners’ lead to 17-10, however, San Francisco put together its 11-play drive – that included Sopoaga’s catch – that not only extended its lead but ate 4:21 off the clock. One of the key plays on the drive came on the 49ers’ third play, a third-and-3 on which Gore was stopped for a 1-yard gain, but the Browns were called for a facemask penalty, giving San Francisco a first down.
NFC West-leading San Francisco now goes on the road for a a game against the Redskins, who lost to the Bills 23-0 Sunday.
Smith finished 15-of-24 for 177 yards, one TD and no interceptions, as the 49ers again won the turnover battle. Cleveland (3-4) turned the ball over twice, the 49ers not at all.
Crabtree finished with five catches for 54 yards; Edwards had four grabs for 42.
Defensively, NaVarro Bowman, the second-year linebacker from Penn State, had 11 tackles.