When wide receiver Michael Crabtree was sidelined with an Achilles injury early in the 2013 season, fans and media members alike agreed that third-year signal-caller Colin Kaepernick had taken a step back from his breakout campaign in 2012.
He wasn’t putting up the same type of numbers he had put up a year ago, nor was he making big-time plays down the field. Instead of playing like a top-five quarterback in the NFL, Kaepernick was playing like a bottom-five quarterback.
In all fairness to him, he didn’t have a lot to work with outside of wide receiver Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis. Both players accounted for the majority of the San Francisco 49ers pass offense, which is why it was easy to quantify Kaepernick’s regression.
However, any talk of regression should be thrown out the window after Kaepernick’s wild-card performance against the Green Bay Packers. The 230-pound long strider ate up Dom Capers’ defense for the second year in a row. In addition to tallying 98 yards on the ground, he garnered 227 yards through the air and scored one touchdown.
Of the 227 yards he had through the air, Crabtree accounted for 125 of them. To no one’s surprise, Crabtree was also the most targeted pass-catcher for the 49ers. Since his Week 13 return (playoffs included), the first-round pick out of Texas Tech has amassed two 100-yard receiving games while notching 27 receptions.
It’s evident Crabtree is becoming the weapon the 49ers needed for a strong playoff run. Would they have won Sunday’s game against the Packers without him in the starting lineup? Based on his production and importance to San Francisco’s offense, it’s safe to say the Niners would have been at a huge disadvantage without him.
The receiver's value goes beyond his numbers. It extends into the run game and how the opposition approaches the 49ers offense.
Shoot, Crabtree’s presence also changes how aggressive offensive coordinator Greg Roman is. With a player like No. 15 active, Roman can afford to open up the playbook and take consistent shots down the field. Suddenly, San Francisco’s offense looks more destructive than it has at any point this season.
Prior to Week 13, the 49ers were averaging 308 yards of total offense, 173 yards passing and 135 yards rushing. Since Crabtree’s return (playoffs included), they are averaging 361 yards of total offense, 214 yards passing and 147 yards rushing.
These are the types of numbers San Francisco will have to continue to put up if they want to beat the Carolina Panthers in the divisional round of the playoffs next week. The Panthers finished the regular season with the No. 2 defense in the league. They had the second-best run defense and the sixth-best pass defense. Moreover, they led the NFL in sacks.
The 49ers' matchup with the Panthers will be entirely different from their matchup with the Packers. The good news is Carolina has been vulnerable at times on the back end. It surrendered 48 pass plays of 20 yards or more and eight pass plays of 40 yards or more.
Crabtree will have an opportunity to add those numbers. Why? Because he will square off against undrafted free-agent cornerback Melvin White. For those of you who are unfamiliar with White, opposing quarterbacks have had success throwing into his coverage area, as evidenced by the below chart from Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
In 697 snaps this season, White has given up 45 receptions, 447 yards receiving and 133 yards after the catch, per Pro Football Focus. Furthermore, his quarterback rating against is 72.4.
Yes, one of his better games in coverage came against the 49ers earlier in the season, but Crabtree wasn’t available when these two teams first met. White spent most of his time covering wide receiver Mario Manningham and tight end Vance McDonald in Week 10.
Crabtree is a much tougher cover than Manningham and McDonald.
Who would have thought Crabtree would have been the key to San Francisco’s offensive success? He has always played a major role in what the team tries to do offensively, but it’s clear pundits (myself included) from around the league underestimated his importance when he went down.
There’s no question that he is Kaepernick’s favorite target. Additionally, let’s not forget Crabtree was Kap’s go-to guy in the playoffs last year. In three postseason games in 2012, he posted two 100-yard games, secured three touchdown passes and averaged 14.3 yards per catch.
Without a doubt, Kap and Crabtree will have to keep their magic alive in Carolina. That’s the only way San Francisco will leave Charlotte with a victory. At particular points throughout the season, odds haven’t exactly been in the 49ers' favor. Yet, as I said weeks ago, this team got hot at just the right time, and its offense is now firing on all cylinders.
The Niners are making their quest for their sixth Super Bowl championship look a heck of a lot easier, thanks in large part to Crabtree and his outstanding playmaking ability.