It could be said that this Saturday’s Packers/Niners playoff game is all about the quarterbacks and whether the young upstart Colin Kaepernick can vest Super Bowl Champion Aaron Rodgers. Or whether San Francisco can contain the multitude of threats at wide receiver that Green Bay possesses. Forget that! Come game time, I am looking for one thing and one thing only; can the Packers secondary stop Michael Crabtree?
A superb route runner with exceptional hands, the talented former Texas Tech wide receiver has had his ups and downs since being drafted by the Niners in 2009. Crabtree’s prolonged rookie holdout won him zero bonus points with the fanbase and in the locker room. Additionally, his questionable work ethic has led to people wondering if the wide receiver would ever justify being a first round draft choice. Yet, in 2012 those uncertainties seem to have transformed into a thing of the past. Simply put, over the course of the past seven games Michael Crabtree has proven that he has finally arrived.
The phrase “#1 receiver” is usually reserved for the upper echelon playmakers in the league and there is no doubt in my mind that Crabtree has now become a #1 receiver and playmaker for the San Francisco. Let me preference the following by saying that as a life long Niners fan and season ticket holder I’m partially biased in my evaluation of Mr. Crabtree. However, because of my fan-dom, I’ve had the luxury of observing the evolution of Crabtree’s game over the last two years. And what an improvement it has been. Crabtree has finally transformed into a player that opposing defensive coordinators think about, into a player that defensive coordinators game plan for. He’s become the first legitimate threat at wide receiver that the Niners have had since Terrell Owens in 2003…nearly 10 years ago. Having said that, why exactly has “Crabs” improved at such a drastic pace this season?
I truly believe that head coach Jim Harbaugh’s decision to switch starting quarterbacks from Alex Smtih to Colin Kaepernick has had the biggest effect over the fourth year receiver. Search the web, and you are surely to find conflicting opinions over whether or not Harbaugh’s decisions was the correct one. In my opinion, it was a no-brainer. Kaperpernick has out performed Alex Smith in 2012, brought versatility to the Niners offense, and he ranks behind only Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in ESPN’s QBR. Make no mistake, having a competent quarterback under center helps any wide receiver.
But it’s the chemistry between Kaepernick and Crabtree that has allowed the latter to elevate his game. Since Harbaugh made the change at quarterback, Crabtree is averaging 85 yards per game, to go along with a 13.8 yards per reception, and perhaps most importantly he’s scored 5 touchdowns. At no point in his career has Crabtree had this type of offensive production.
One undeniable key to Crabtree’s evolution is Kaepernicks’s arm strength and the quarterback’s ability to get the ball to his receiver in a timely manner. This directly coincides with Crabtree’s biggest strength, in my opinion, which is his ability to rack up yards after the catch. This season, Crabtree ranked 6th among NFL receivers in yards after the catch (465) and it’s primarily because he has Kaepernick slinging the rock to him. For those doubters, I’ll refer you to Crabtree’s game winning touchdown reception versus the Patriots in Week 16.
Routes likes this have made Michael Crabtree a tough cover in 2012
So while others in the media might be focused on the Packers extreme depth at the wide receiver position, which includes Greg Jennings, James Jones, Randall Cobb, and Jordy Nelson (if healthy). Truth be told, Crabtree is the premier receiving option over each and every one of those receivers right now and it will be interesting to see how Dom Caper’s defense matches-up with him on Saturday evening.
Obviously, the Packers can shift coverage towards Crabtree’s side of the field. Yet, in my opinion, that could be a huge mistake. Harbaugh and his staff have proven to be a master minds at distinguishing mismatches, and don’t be surprised if Vernon Davis or Delanie Walker break through should that be the case.
It’s no secret that Green Bay vs. San Francisco is the premier playoff matchup of the weekend. It’s a contest that is even more alluring given the recent spike of production of Michael Crabtree. History tells us that divisional match-ups can sometimes come down to a play or two. Don’t be surprised if Crabtree has his hands in one or both of those plays come Saturday evening.
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