On Sunday, Michael Crabtree made his much anticipated season debut for the San Francisco 49ers against the St Louis Rams. He caught two balls for 68 yards, including a 60-yard reception in which he was close to breaking away for a touchdown.
Crabtree, who caught more than 60 passes for 950 yards in his 10 games with Colin Kaepernick last season, tore his Achilles tendon during organized team activities in May, changing the entire dynamic of the 49ers offense. Minus their vertical threat and No. 1 receiver, San Francisco had clearly suffered in his absence, with the 49ers posting one of the leagues worst passing attacks.
San Francisco, which thrived on the dual ability to run and throw the ball on their run to the Super Bowl last season, turned one-dimensional, mainly becoming a running team. But defenses clued into the fact that they can stack the box against the run and not be damaged by the passing attack of the 49ers.
Running the ball worked fine against the sub-.500 teams in the league, but in losses against Seattle, Indianapolis and Carolina, the 49ers combined for only 17 points.
But the return of Crabtree seemed to have a domino effect on the rest of the San Francisco offense. Crabtree back meant that Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis could not be double teamed (it’s no coincidence that they teamed up for 180 yards receiving). Mario Manningham, although not making an appearance on the stat sheet against St Louis, should prosper as he receives weaker coverage as the team’s No. 4 option.
One could tell that Crabtree did not have the explosiveness that we are used to seeing, but just the fact that he is out on the field means that he has to be respected, and therefore taking some of the added attention that was on other players.
San Francisco won’t be winning the division — but with a top-three defense in the NFL, a healthy offensive line, and the four man crew of Crabtree, Boldin, Davis and Manningham to throw the ball to, the 49ers should be at their best come playoffs.