San Francisco 49ers fans are about to have their prayers answered. Michael Crabtree is not only active, but he's a full participant in practice, looking ready to go for Sunday’s game against the St. Louis Rams. Crabtree, of course, has been out since May with a torn Achilles tendon, and the offensive performance has dropped off a cliff.
While blaming the entire drop-off on Crabtree is overly simplistic, the numbers do jump out at you.
It’s not just the utter lack of performance by any wide receiver not named Anquan Boldin, though that hasn’t helped—Kyle Williams and Jonathan Baldwin, the second- and third-most used receivers in 2013, have combined for 15 receptions in 2013, compared to 52 for the second and third receivers up to this point last season. Where he’s really been missed is as a target—someone the defense has to respect.
This table compares the number of targets for 49ers receivers in 2012 with the number of targets in 2013, prorated for a 16-game season:
|2012 Player||Targets||2013 Player||Targets (prorated)|
You can see that, while the total number of targets has remained somewhat constant, the distribution has changed dramatically. Essentially, Boldin and Davis are doing the work of three people. That simplifies coverage assignments for defenses, knowing that if they shut down Boldin and Davis, they shut down the offense.
Now that Crabtree’s back, the offense has the potential to open up, just in time for the stretch run.
First things first, however—what will the 49ers offense look like on Sunday against the Rams?
Just because Crabtree is back doesn’t mean he’ll be the same player he was last year.
The best recent comparison for Crabtree’s recovery is probably Demaryius Thomas, who tore his Achilles back in February of 2011. Thomas was able to play in Week 7 of that season in a limited fashion, but it wasn’t until December, 10 months after his initial injury, that he was able to produce at the levels we’ve been accustomed to.
It was weeks before he was able to play a majority of offensive stats. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) charted his snap count throughout the season, and starting in Week 13 against Minnesota, his percentages rose dramatically.
If Crabtree’s recovery follows the same pattern—and remember, Thomas had a three-month head start on his recovery—expectations should be tempered off the bat.
The 49ers are being predictably coy as to what Crabtree’s role will be on Sunday, as reported by Matt Barrows of SacBee.com. But a realistic prediction would have him in a reserve role, playing somewhere around half San Francisco’s offensive snaps as a clear-cut third option for Colin Kaepernick.
It’s highly doubtful he’ll be able to have the same level of explosive acceleration or quick cuts that he had pre-injury, at least until next season. But even if he’s only halfway back, Crabtree provides a more dangerous weapon than anyone else San Francisco has put out there across from Boldin and Davis this season.
Finally Waking Up
Though you may not know it from the coverage of the game, the rest of San Francisco’s offense will be out there alongside Crabtree on Sunday.
Last week against Washington, the 49ers had one of their better games of the season, at least through the air. For only the third time this season, Colin Kaepernick and company broke the 200-yard barrier.
A lot of that can be credited to an offensive line that kept Kaepernick upright, allowing time for receivers to get open downfield. Against Washington, the offensive line only allowed two sacks and eight quarterback hurries, mostly from replacement left guard Adam Snyder.
The relatively clean pocket allowed Kaepernick to complete 10-of-14 deep passes for 199 yards and two touchdowns, a dramatic change from an offense that has been throwing 60 percent of its passes shorter than 10 yards down the field.
An example of this deep-ball philosophy can be seen on Anquan Boldin’s 19-yard touchdown in the first quarter.
It’s a fairly simple play design. Boldin and Jon Baldwin run corner routes while Vernon Davis runs up the seam. With only one deep safety, someone will get one-on-one coverage in the end zone, with both backs running short darts as safety options.
One of the receivers should be open, but the play only works if the offensive line gives Kaepernick time in the pocket for the routes to develop.
That pocket is textbook—you couldn’t execute better if you tried. It gave Kaepernick four or five seconds without any rushers, allowing everything to develop and Kaepernick to find his man deep.
This wasn’t an isolated incident, either.
Kaepernick had time all night long and made all the plays made available to him. There has been talk out there, from ESPN’s Trent Dilfer and others, calling him a “one-read” quarterback who can’t find ways to make plays successful when they break down. There may be some truth in that, and it may simply be a result of the fact he’s still a young quarterback, learning on the job.
When the pocket is kept that clean, however, someone will come open, no matter how comfortable the quarterback is.
It was a promising development, and one they’ll look to bring into the Rams game on Sunday.
St. Louis is ranked in the middle of the pack by Football Outsiders when it comes to pass defense, and it has been particularly vulnerable against top receivers, allowing 87.3 yards per game, and running backs, where they’re ranked last in the league.
Janoris Jenkins is allowing 55 yards a game, placing him in the bottom 10 in the league according to Pro Football Focus. Cortland Finnegan, the Rams' No. 2 cornerback, is on injured reserve, and their third cornerback, Trumaine Johnson, hasn’t yet passed clearance tests after suffering concussion-like symptoms last week.
There’s every opportunity for the team to continue building on the deep passing game.
Offensive Line Is Key
Of course, none of those cornerback issues matter if the pocket collapses, so the key matchup to watch in this game might be left tackle Joe Staley attempting to handle Robert Quinn, who is having a huge season.
Quinn is second in the league in sacks at the moment with 13, he has forced six fumbles, and he has been chasing quarterbacks all season long.
With Mike Iupati still out at left guard, it’ll be down to star-versus-star in keeping Kaepernick upright and the running game clicking against St. Louis. In their first matchup this season, Staley held Quinn to by far his worst game of the season, according to Pro Football Focus. He still registered a sack and two hurries, but those were well below his averages.
He’ll be fully primed for this game, alongside Chris Long on the other side. If they’re able to crash the two tackles, collapsing the pocket and forcing Kaepernick to make quick decisions, they should be able to weather the pass-attack storm.
San Francisco was able to get around this in their previous matchup by leaning on Frank Gore and company. Gore ran for 153 yards in their first matchup, his best day of the year so far.
The way to handle a pass-rushing specialist by Quinn? Run right by him.
On runs to the left side of the line, Gore ran 13 times for 78 yards in a very effective performance. The 49ers used a variety of power plays, along with a lot of two-tight end sets and the fullback, to provide matchup advantages in the run game. Both tight ends played at least 50 snaps, while fullback Bruce Miller was in on 37 more.
The end result saw the 49ers forcing the Rams off the ball, which allowed Gore to pick up large chunks of yardage.
An example of that comes on this run from the second quarter of that first matchup. You can see Quinn on the left edge, coming hard off the edge. Iupati just gives him a bit of shove, using his own momentum to push him well out of the play, while Staley exploded out to the second level, creating a huge lane for Gore to burst through.
For the second straight week, Adam Snyder will get the start at left guard for the injured Mike Iupati. That will be something to watch, as Snyder has struggled and is a clear downgrade.
Still, there are enough pieces remaining, and they had enough success in the first matchup, to think Gore and the running game have the potential for a very big day.