When asked if Michael Crabtree’s return had any outcome at all on the 49ers’ 19-17 win over the Seahawks on Sunday, Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman told Bay Area Group’s Cam Inman, “It didn’t make a difference. It didn’t make a difference at all.”
Though that comment was surrounded by many other bitter, resentful comments after a weak individual performance, this reply seemed much stupider than the other things Sherman said about Sunday’s matchup (though the “glorified practice” line was pretty awful as well).
Crabtree’s numbers weren’t spectacular by any means, but his presence was definitely felt on the football field. Simply looking at basic numbers can show that it made a difference.
Anquan Boldin had more space to work. Colin Kaepernick had another receiver who could get open. Crabtree was able to see plenty of targets and pull down a couple of balls, giving the offense another dimension against a defense that had absolutely owned it in the past two meetings.
That Week 2 matchup was full of horrendous passing numbers for the 49ers offense. Kyle Williams led the team in targets and receptions. The ex-49ers wideouts garnered 11 targets in a game where San Francisco spent every minute either tied at 0-0 or trailing.
Plenty was written about how ineffective Boldin was and how well Sherman covered him, crushing the momentum built after Boldin’s Week 1 domination of the Packers secondary. For the most part, Kaepernick had nowhere to go when he wanted to throw to receivers. They just couldn’t get any separation throughout the day (though defensive holding is extremely tough to fight against).
Sunday’s game offered 49ers wide receivers 20 targets in a game that was tightly contested the whole way through. Kaepernick obviously felt much more comfortable throwing the ball to his receivers and allowing them the opportunity to make plays. There were spots where this didn’t work out perfectly, such as the red zone interception Kaepernick threw that was intended for Crabtree. Crabtree definitely had a step on the defender, but the ball was underthrown and fell right into Byron Maxwell’s hands. Though it resulted in a turnover, the play still showed that Kaepernick had the confidence to put the play in his receiver’s hands. I doubt that he would have made the same play to Williams or Marlon Moore.
This game was also characterized by Boldin’s toughness in the face of the Seattle secondary. Though he once again had a healthy dose of Sherman, Boldin was able to fight through the stout corner’s press coverage and find spots for Kaepernick to throw to. He also made a spectacular grab with Sherman all over him, earning a first down and plenty of trash talk directed toward Sherman. From that point on, it felt like Boldin had the confidence to continue finding his spots throughout the game, working his way through a Seattle secondary that left him utterly ineffective during their last meeting. He was fired up throughout the game, showcasing a playoff intensity that will be key down the stretch.
This game never got away from Kaepernick, as he seemed to feel relatively comfortable, considering the amount of pressure that this defense generates. He was able to play a balanced, controlled game, with his only pick coming on a good read but a poorly thrown ball. His numbers were nearly identical to Russell Wilson’s, with a couple more of Kaepernick’s dropbacks resulting in small runs. The effectiveness of these plays can be sneaky when looking at a box score, as many of them resulted in small, positive gains that shortened possible second-and-10s and third-and-10s to more manageable down-and-distance situations.
Though Sherman refused to acknowledge Crabtree’s effect on the game, Boldin was much more willing to heap praise upon his teammate. When asked about Crabtree’s contributions, Boldin told The Sacramento Bee’s Matt Barrows, “Today, you know, having Crab back we had different looks, it was allowing me to go one-on-one with certain guys. That’s why you see a difference.” A perfect quote to counter Sherman’s, it succinctly describes what Crabtree brought to Sunday’s game: a difference.