By Jerrell Richardson
The news that Michael Crabtree has been cleared to return to the practice field, right after the news that fellow receiver Mario Manningham is already practicing is huge for the 49ers. The San Francisco passing attack is ranked last in the NFL, and while the number one ranked rushing game has a lot to do with it, so does the lack of targets for quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
The return of these two receivers will not only elevate this team from the depths of the NFL’s pass rankings, but more importantly will round what is now the most unbalanced attack in the NFL. Once Crabtree is back on the field, San Francisco will trot out an offense that looks nothing like the one that defenses have seen on film this year. The bread and butter of the 49ers is still the run, and the less Kaepernick has to drop back to throw the better, but with a legitimate passing attack, the 49ers are now ready to take on the NFL elite, none of whom have to like how they now matchup against the defending NFC Champions.
How Is the Offense Better?
Last year Michael Crabtree was a Pro Bowler with 85 receptions, 1,105 yards and nine touchdowns. He was also the only consistent target that Kaepernick had to throw to as Manningham was limited in 2012 due to injuries, particularly at the end of the season when Kaepernick was the starter. Vernon Davis had respectable numbers a year ago, but he and Kaepernick didn’t get on the same page until the playoffs. The next two leading receivers, Randy Moss and Delanie Walker are no longer with the team. So without any of his security blankets, Kaepernick, in just his first full season as a starter has played pretty well. What Kaepernick has done in the absence of Crabtree and Manningham is find two new targets that will leave defenders with an uneasy feeling later this month, when there are four legitimate receiving threats on the field at the same time.
Spreading the Love
While the 49ers 32nd pass ranking could not be any worse, it’s far more balanced than it was a year ago. This year there are two 49ers on pace to tally 1,000 receiving yards, which is especially impressive considering when Crabtree pulled this feat off last year, he was the first since Terrell Owens in 2003 to do so. This season Anquan Boldin has 551 yards and Vernon Davis has 518 which means that Kaepernick has been spreading the ball around, which was not the case last year.
Who Do You Cover?
The 49ers employ several creative and unique formations to take advantage of their mismatches, and will have a field day with two new toys in their play pen. While Manningham and Crabtree still have to get themselves back into the swing of things, what is hopeful is that Kaepernick has learned how to play without Crabtree, which was not evident last year during the playoffs. Last season, when the team needed a big catch, Kaepernick went to Crabtree. This season he can still go to Crabtree, but also has Anquan Boldin, a player known for making big catches in big games, Vernon Davis who with Kaepernick’s big arm is a big play waiting to happen or Mario Manningham whose claim to fame is a big catch in the Super Bowl. While it may still take a back seat to the running game, the aerial attack is no longer (on paper) a liability.
Injuries Have Helped 49ers Find Their Way
The early season injuries have only helped the 49ers, who are right in the mix of getting home field advantage throughout the playoffs. They had to survive with a quarterback still getting comfortable with his receivers, and have two players on pace for 1,000 yards. They have learned that the winning formula is the run, and with more weapons on the outside, will see things open up for Frank Gore and crew down the stretch. Offensive efficiency is about chemistry and timing so it will take some time before everything gets clicking, but the San Francisco offense is suddenly a much more balanced attack. This will force opponents to pick their poison, when playing a 49er squad that now has the ability to beat teams with the run or pass. What a difference two players make.
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Jerrell Richardson is a Bay Area native who due to a college career at San Diego State University has grown an appreciation for all things sports related in California. His heart will always remain in San Francisco though where he currently resides and covers everything from the San Francisco 49ers and Giants to the San Jose Sharks and California Bears Baseball team. Jerrell is a freelance writer covering all things NFL. His work can be found on Examiner.com.