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Michael Crabtree's Eventual Return to 49ers' Starting Lineup Key to Playoff Run

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Michael Crabtree's Eventual Return to 49ers' Starting Lineup Key to Playoff Run
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The San Francisco 49ers won't do much damage in the playoffs without Michael Crabtree in the starting lineup—if the team even makes it into the postseason tournament.

He's been out all year long with an Achilles injury but has been practicing for the past couple of weeks.

The talented receiver was angling for a return to action against Washington on Monday Night Football, but the 49ers made a late decision to keep him shelved for one more week, as noted by Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area:

The return of 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree will have to wait at least another week.

The 49ers did not activate Crabtree to the 53-man roster by the 1 p.m. (PT) deadline Monday, making him ineligible to make his season debut in the nationally televised night game against Washington at 5:30 p.m.

The 49ers can't wait much longer to activate Crabtree.

When players come off the PUP list midseason, their teams have three weeks to make a decision about whether to activate them for games or to put them on the season-ending IR.

As noted by Ian Rapoport, the 49ers must make a move by Tuesday, Nov. 26, or go the rest of the way without Colin Kaepernick's favorite target on offense the rest of the way:

49ers fans shouldn't fret about this, though. 

All the latest reports coming out of San Francisco indicate the 49ers have every intention of activating Crabtree before the deadline.

Maiocco provided insight on the matter before the team's bye week, writing, "...Crabtree will be added to the 49ers’ 53-man roster within the next six days."

Jim Corbett of USA Today supported this report on Monday:

His impending return can't come fast enough for San Francisco.

Third-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick has noticeably declined this season without his favorite receiver from last year. The 49ers rank dead last in the NFL in passing, averaging just 168 yards per game.

Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

When facing teams that feature physical cornerbacks and a strong pass-rushing contingency, the 49ers' passing game has withered significantly. Without Crabtree, there hasn't been a single receiver on San Francisco's roster this season with the ability to gain separation off the line of scrimmage. 

Many of Kaepernick's passes to receivers this year have been highly contested, which is why his completion percentage is down. Guys simply aren't getting open as often this season as they were last year. 

Kaepernick's numbers bear this out, as he's completely fallen apart against the Seattle Seahawks, Indianapolis Colts and Carolina Panthers this year. 

Kaepernick vs. Top Defenses
Opponent Comp. Pct. Yards Touchdowns Interceptions
@ Seattle Seahawks 46.4% 127 0 3
Indianapolis Colts 48.1% 150 0 1
Carolina Panthers 50.0% 91 0 1

ESPN.com

Hearkening back to last season, one of the biggest reasons San Francisco's offense took off the way it did when Kaepernick took over for Alex Smith is that he and Crabtree had instant chemistry.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

This is easily seen by the number of targets he received compared to any of the team's other receiving targets, as noted by Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle:

Crabtree's production skyrocketed once Kaepernick took over.

In his final eight games (including the playoffs and Super Bowl), he eclipsed 100 yards five times and caught seven touchdowns. Jamey Eisenberg of CBS Sports did some math and came up with some staggering figures, showing what kind of numbers the receiver could have put up in a 16-game season:

ESPN Stats & Info provided even more perspective about Crabtree's impact on San Francisco's offense, illustrating just how invaluable he was for the 49ers last year after Kaepernick took over:

The 49ers still have one of the league's most impressive rushing attacks, and the team hasn't lost a single game this year when it has relied on Frank Gore to carry the load (17-plus carries). In the games Gore has touched the ball 16 times or fewer, the 49ers have lost.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

At this time, it's clear the 49ers have no real balance on offense. Playing with receivers who struggle to get off the line and separate from defenders, Kaepernick's confidence has waned, as has his production. 

How far will the 49ers go in the playoffs this year with Crabtree back in the lineup?

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This team can still win games against good teams, even without a big-time passing game. Featuring the league's No. 4-ranked rushing offense and scoring defense, the 49ers can hang tough with most teams. However, this team will suffer an early exit in the playoffs without a competent passing game.

Crabtree is the catalyst for San Francisco's aerial attack.

He does get separation from defenders on a regular basis, utilizing excellent footwork, precise routes and his big body to put himself in position to make big plays. 

It's been remarkable how well Vernon Davis has performed as the team's only viable scoring weapon for San Francisco this year. He's already scored eight touchdowns this season, but the 49ers have only been able to scrounge three more scores through the air.  

Michael Regan/Getty Images

Imagine how much easier it'll be for Davis to get open with Crabtree in the lineup, alongside Anquan Boldin and Mario Manningham. 

Finally, the 49ers will have some balance. 

Finally, Kaepernick will be able to breath deep under pressure, knowing one of his big-play receivers will find a way to get open. 

After the 49ers take on Washington on Monday Night, the team will have five more games to solidify itself as a playoff team in the NFC. Of the team's remaining games, four of its opponents are either playoff teams or have been playing well of late. 

San Francisco's Remaining Schedule
Opponent Record Streak
Week 13 St. Louis Rams 5-6 Won 2
Week 14 Seattle Seahawks 10-1 Won 6
Week 15 @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers 3-8 Won 3
Week 16 Atlanta Falcons 2-9 Lost 5
Week 17 @ Arizona Cardinals 7-4 Won 4

ESPN.com

In particular, the upcoming games against Seattle and Arizona will likely determine whether or not San Francisco even gets into the playoffs. Heading into Monday night's game, the 49ers were on the outside looking in regarding the NFC playoff picture.

Provided Crabtree is activated before the deadline, this final stretch provides him and the 49ers the perfect opportunity to get sharp against tough competition. If he returns to the same form we saw last year, then the 49ers will not only make the playoffs, but this team will be incredibly difficult to beat. 

 

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReed78 

 

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