After torching the Rams on 19 of 28 passing for 275 yards it was expected that Colin Kaepernick would be called to the post game press conference. The surprising part was that his two main weapons outside, Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin, joined him at the microphones to answer questions about an impressive performance. And while the stat sheets shows that Kaepernick and Boldin had more of an impact on the game, the real story was the return of Crabtree and his instant effect on the offense.
While he only managed to haul in two passes for 68 yards, Crabtree’s return impacted the entire game with his presence. For 11 weeks, the 49ers have had only 2 viable receiving threats, Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin, and good teams have managed to limit their effectiveness with bracket coverages and double teams.On Sunday, the presence of Crabtree, Boldin and Davis gave the 49ers too many legit weapons for the Rams to double team. As Anquan Boldin bluntly put it “its about time he gets double-teamed now”.
On Sunday, Crabtree’s effect was evident in how the the coverages the Rams played and how Boldin was able to operate with more freedom. Additionally, with both outside receivers being productive, Vernon Davis was able to impact the game with several big catches over the middle, giving the 49ers the kind of receiving balance required in the NFL.
While the film shows these differences, the stats illustrate how much more effective the 49ers were throwing the ball. Nearly every single passing statistic, whether it be completion percentage, yards or completions were a season high since Week 1’s outburst. More telling is that the wide receiving duo of Crabtree and Boldin were targeted 17 times and overall the 49ers completed 10 passes outside the numbers, both also highs since Week 1.
And this success did not go unnoticed by the Rams defense. Early in the game they were packing the box to take away the run, but the success throwing the ball to the outside forced them into more 2 high safety looks in the second half. While the running attack never gained a footing, continued success throwing the ball will do wonders for Frank Gore and Co. and finally create a balanced offense.
Even more important for the 49ers going forward than the effective passing attack was the creation of a big play on the outside. Let’s look at how the 49ers were finally able to break a big pass play down the sideline due to Crabtree’s ability and how the Rams were forced to respect that.
Game Situation: 3rd Quarter, 01:14, 3RD and 7 at the SF 20, 49ers 16, Rams 6
Offensive Personnel: 3 WR (Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, Mario Manningham) 1 RB (Frank Gore) 2 TE (Vernon Davis)
Formation: Shotgun Trips
Offensive Concept: Stop N Go
Defensive Scheme: Robber
Pre-Snap: The 49ers come to the line with a formation rarely seen in San Francisco, 4 receiving options spilt out, 3 WR and 1 TE. With the field spread and the 49ers needing 7 yards, the Rams show Man 2 but are in Robber, one high safety in deep zone and the other S reading the quarterbacks eyes trying to take away quick routes over the middle. Additionally, CB Johnson is giving WR Crabtree a 9 yard cushion on the outside in part due out of respect for his ability to beat him deep.
Post-Snap: After getting vertical for 5 yards, WR Crabtree chops his feet appearing to start his break on a quick hitch. In reality, he is preparing to break deep and the pre snap cushion forces CB Johnson to break forward out of his off coverage to prevent the quick completion. When QB Kaepernick sees this he knows his man has won and is ready to throw the ball deep and allow his man to run under it.
As CB Johnson shifts forward, WR Crabtree breaks downfield creating a significant amount of separation down the sideline. In the middle of the field S McDonald realizes his teammate is beat and turns downfield to create and an angle on WR Crabtree.
Lacking the explosive speed due to his injury, WR Crabtree is unable to outrun CB Johnson down the sideline and is forced to use a stiff arm to prevent being taken down. While the stiff arm is effective against CB Johnson, it slows down WR Crabtree enough to let S McDonald catch up and ultimately bring him down after a 60 yard gain, 42 of which were after the catch.
Summary: In the postgame press conference, Michael Crabtree was asked about this play and if his grimacing after being tackled was due to his injury or something else. His response was near perfect, ‘ I was supposed to take that to the house’.
This play demonstrates how the 49ers might have found the major thing missing from the offense, a big play threat on the outside. For the first 11 weeks of the season, the 49ers lone vertical threat was Vernon Davis and he does his damage primarily in between the hash marks. Further evidence is that the 49ers receivers have exactly 2 catches over 30 yards this season and only one over 25 yards since week 4, highlighting the complete inability to beat defenders deep.
On this play, the 49ers were able to exploit the cushion given out of respect for Crabtree with a quick double move. It was a simple one read play that relied on the wide receiver winning convincingly and that’s exactly what happened.
While the long pass to Crabtree was as simple as it gets from the quarterback position, the increased weapons and resulting success gave Kaepernick the confidence to thrive in more difficult situations. Let’s look at how Kaepernick was able to quickly and proficiently progress through his reads, something that has been a struggle this season, to find an open receiver for a big gain.
Game Situation: 3rd Quarter, 8:56, 1st and 10 at the SF 22, 49ers 13, Rams 6
Offensive Personnel: 2 WR (Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin) 1 RB (Frank Gore, Bruce Miller) 2 TE (Vernon Davis)
Formation: Strong Pistol
Offensive Concept: Progression Read
Defensive Scheme: Cover 2
Pre-Snap: The 49ers align in their strong pistol package, FB Miller and TE Davis are on the same side of the formation, with WR Crabtree out wide left. The Rams initially show an 8 Man front with S Steward in the box but drop out of it at the snap partly to give safety help over WR Crabtree.
Post-Snap: QB Kaepernick’s first read, WR Crabtree’s 5 yard in route, is taken away by CB Jenkins who broke on the route because he can in Cover 2 with safety help behind him.
With his first read not an option, QB Kaepernick calmly toggles to his second read TE Davis’ quick hitch over the middle. Again the Rams defense is in position to take prevent the throw, this time LB Laurinaitis, so QB Kaepernick pats the ball and continues to scan the field. While QB Kaepernick is progressing through his reads, RB Gore slips out of the backfield on a swing route to the right flat. This action causes LB Olgetree, a rookie, to step forward out of position despite it not being his responsibility, the flat is the CB cover in Cover 2.
LB Olgetree’s mistake allows FB Miller, also on a quick hitch, to come wide open. With the pocket holding up extremely well, not an easy thing given the Rams talent and the injuries to the offensive line, QB Kaepernick quickly spots his fullback as he moves through his reads. QB Kaepernick then delivers a dart to FB Miller who turns up upfield for a 21 yard gain.
Summary: The GIF above showing QB Kaepernick’s eyes tells the whole story. As anyone who has read these breakdowns or studied Kaepernick’s play over the past few months knows, there have been many times this year when his first read was taken away and he failed to progress even to his second read leading to some ill advised scramble attempts. On this play, he calmly and collectively flipped through 3 reads and found the defensive mistake and capitalized, all in under 3 seconds.
While there are multiple reasons behind Kaepernick’s success Sunday, a major one was his confidence. With his main target back in fold, the 49ers passing game was able to get rolling early and provided their young quarterback with the self-belief required to succeed. Whether it was reading the field, quick decisions to tuck the ball and scramble or fitting the ball into tight windows, Kaepernick looked like the quarterback we all expected him to be on Sunday.
With the offense struggling and Kaepernick seemingly regressing, many people were quick to speculate if Michael Crabtree could provide the missing element for the 49ers offense. But there were so many questions; will he be effective coming off a major injury, can Crabtree and Kaepernick find the chemistry that fueled last years passing attack and how will Boldin, Manningham and Davis respond to the insertion of a number one wide out. While we didn’t get all the answers on Sunday we got a glimpse of how Michael Crabtree, even limited, can transform this offense.
Yes, the running game still sputtered, but the Rams still played a lot of single high safety, something that teams will be forced to change if the success through the air continues. And the offense settled for multiple field goals when touchdowns would have put the Rams away, but the 49ers are starting to find their groove at the perfect time. Now all they have to do is prove it against the Seahawks.