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Browns-49ers matchup of the day: Thursday

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Posted Oct. 27, 2011 @ 10:03 a.m. ET
By Mike Wilkening

Here's a matchup to watch in Sunday's Browns-49ers game: 

49ers pass rush vs. Browns pass protection

The 49ers, who employ a 3-4 scheme on defense, get very good pressure from their outside linebackers as well as their defensive linemen, 

OLB Aldon Smith, the club's first-round pick in April, is off to a promising start to his pro career, to say the least. Smith has made a significant impact as a pass rusher, notching 5½ sacks. The 6-4, 258-pound Smith is quick and strong. He used his hands well in notching a pair of sacks vs. Lions OLT Jeff Backus in Week Six, closing quickly to bring down QB Matthew Stafford for a safety on the first takedown and for a big loss on the second.

In addition to Smith, who has starred in a reserve role, a la Terrell Suggs in Baltimore eight years ago, the 49ers have two solid starting outside linebackers in Parys Haralson (right) and Ahmad Brooks (left), who each have two sacks apiece.

The 49ers' starting DE tandem of Justin Smith (4½ sacks) and Ray McDonald (three sacks) also can be disruptive. Smith has long been a productive starter, one of the NFL's high-effort players. McDonald is also a player to watch. Late in the win at Detroit, he lined up in the middle in an obvious passing situation, pushed Lions C Dominic Raiola backward and sacked Stafford. It was a textbook display of the importance of leverage, as the 6-3, 290-pound McDonald got low and used his strength to win the battle.

The Browns allowed five sacks vs. Seattle on Sunday and have surrendered 14 in six games. Cleveland really struggled vs. Seattle's blitzes, something San Francisco surely noticed.

The Browns face challenges on a couple of fronts against the Niners' pass rush, which has shown it can get to the quarterback without blitzing. It will take a team effort to thrive against this impressive defense, which covers well and can generate significant pressure. The Browns' pass catchers must get open, the linemen must be stout and technically sound. The backs must pick up any free rushers, and tight ends need to be tough blocking on the edge.

QB Colt McCoy will need to be poised and accurate in the face of pressure, too, and should the pass protection break down, he needs to be creative but prudent. While he must be careful not to turn the ball over, the Browns need to make more downfield plays than they have in the first six games.

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