SANTA CLARA, Calif. — When tight end George Kittle reeled in a 22-yard touchdown to lead off the second half on Monday night, he stood over the S in “49ers” and took a swing with an imaginary baseball bat.
As fullback Kyle Juszczyk put a flattened hand up to his eyes to watch Kittle’s phantom drive soar, and the crowd at Levi’s Stadium — for the first time in its controversial (and largely quiet) existence — truly roared.
Dee Ford, who played at the decibel-record-setting Arrowhead Stadium with the Kansas City Chiefs, said, “Well we gon’ set some records. That’s what we gon’ do. We were loud tonight. It’s going to get louder.” San Francisco is 4-0 for the first time in 29 years after its win on Monday night, and they may not yet be peaking.
“This isn’t a fluke that we are just running through these teams,” said cornerback Richard Sherman. “It’s not a joke, it’s not a game.”
The 49ers’ win over the Cleveland Browns — predicted to be a 10- or 11-win team before the season — was a comprehensive win, with the defense holding the Browns to just 180 net yards, bottling up Nick Chub, completely taking Odell Beckham Jr. out of the game and battering quarterback Baker Mayfield to the tune of eight quarterback hits. The run game piled up 275 rushing yards on 40 carries. San Francisco generated four takeaways, including one on a punt return by Beckham.
Still, head coach Kyle Shanahan saw warts. In the fourth quarter, the 49ers failed to built in their lead, fumbled and committed four penalties as they tried to bleed clock.
“We had the dropped slant and just we went backwards a couple times with the turnovers,” Shanahan said. “I just felt like I really wanted to finish it and it didn’t seem like we totally did.”
Beyond those miscues, kicker Robbie Gould — who had missed three field goals in the two seasons combined — missed his first two and had his third blocked, before finally hitting a 44-yarder for the final score.
“I saw at least one rough snap that looked very hard for Robbie to get off,” Shanahan said. “I know all the others weren’t perfect by any means. There’s three people involved in it. I know we had a block. It looked like they came off the wing, off the edge. So I’m not exactly sure, but definitely wasn’t good enough. It was probably one of our worst games in terms of, I don’t know about the whole special teams, but obviously in kicking.”
While Jimmy Garoppolo went 20-of-29 for 181 yards, the passing game was thwarted by drops from Dante Pettis and Deebo Samuel — two potentially game-breaking receivers San Francisco is depending on for a great deal of production.
All that, and Juszczyk went down with what Shanahan called a possible knee sprain. The success of the run game is in large part due to Juszczyk’s blocking — particularly on Monday, when Juszczyk’s motioning to his right drew overpursuit from Browns linebackers.
Division play starts next week, when the 49ers head down to Los Angeles to face the Rams, who have held opposing teams to just 106 yards per game on the ground. Not having Juszczyk will complicate the 49ers’ game planning.
There can be other ways to block, but perhaps the most effective is keeping Kittle in to pick up linebackers, and that would take away one of San Francisco’s most impactful pass catchers. Between when Juszczyk went out in the third quarter and the final three kneel-downs, Garoppolo went 2-for-5 for 24 yards and the run game produced 41 yards on seven carries, a yard per carry less than they’d averaged over the previous 33 rushing attempts. The 49ers — and Shanahan — need to be able to weather Juszczyk’s absence.
That’s all to say that, while Monday night was a thorough beatdown of a possible playoff team, it was far from complete, and made apparent the adjustments San Francisco still has to make before Shanahan or anyone in that locker room is anything close to comfortable.
San Francisco is 4-0 for the first time since 1990, and the fifth time in team history. In 1990, the 49ers started 10-0 and finished 14-2. In 1984, San Francisco went 15-1 and won the Super Bowl. In 1952, the 49ers started 5-0, but finished 7-5, and in 1948, they started 10-0 and finished 12-2.
“It means it’s still early,” Shanahan said. “It means we played four games, one less than most people. If you tell me that at the end of the year when the season is over, you’ll see me celebrating up here pretty hard. It’s going to be a short week and we’ve got to get to work on the Rams pretty early tomorrow.”