Michael Crabtree emerging in fourth year as go-to threat for the San Francisco 49ers

Brian Bahr - Getty Images

San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree is emerging here in his fourth year. We breakdown what's made him effective in 2012.

The San Francisco 49ers are on a serious mission right now.

Since the beginning of the 2012 season - after outscoring the Packers and Lions, and then going on to blowout the Jets and Bills in back-to-back weeks - it's been clear that the 49ers placed a very real emphasis on the offensive side of the football.

Regardless of how great their defense is, the talk has been centered on the offense. The Niners had a record-setting performance in Week 5, where Alex Smith and all his minions went off against the Bills defense.

The Niners players have been able to establish a balanced, potent attack on offense. The team has scored 27 or more points in four of their first five games. After this past week, they jumped thirteen spots in the offensive rankings, climbing out of the high teens to No. 6 in the NFL.

And though the offense appears leaps and bounds from where they were at the end of 2011, the team is doing it with a lot of the same pieces. Vernon Davis, Frank Gore and Michael Crabtree have all played prominent roles in this offense's resurgence.

Since the biggest issue last year was at wide receiver, Crabtree's emergence has been the most pleasant surprise. Despite the additions of Randy Moss and Mario Manningham, Crabtree remained the No. 1 wide out in San Francisco's offense.

This year, Crabtree has emerged as Alex Smith's go-to receiver, particularly on third down or in clutch moments. Crabtree has had a laser focus in 2012, showing glimpses here and there, but really putting together a solid performance this past week.

He's displayed his sticky hands, which have earned the trust of the Niners quarterback. Smith can focus less on convenient ball placement for the receiver, and instead just keep it away from the defender. There is the confidence there that Crabtree can adjust and make the tough, body-bending grabs.

A particular niche in his game that continues to evolve is his ability when it comes to yards after catch.

One of the more impressive facets of Crabtree's game is what he does once he has possession. The 49ers receiver is like a running back, spinning, juking and stiff-arming defenders. He runs hard, breaking weak arm tackles and fighting off would-be tacklers.

As soon as he has possession, he turns up field in a hurry. He is also cerebral and instinctive when it comes to best utilizing angles to optimize his yardage.

Coming off of a big Week 5 win, something that should excite fans is that Alex Smith was starting to find Crabtree beyond the first down marker. He has improved getting open deep, having scored his first touchdown of the year on a bomb from Smith.

Through experience, Crabtree has developed as a route-runner. He's been creating separation with his body language, and being where he is supposed to be. On Sunday, Crabtree had 113 receiving yards, but had a 40-yarder negated by a penalty. The Niners pass-catcher should have actually had 150-plus receiving yards that day.

We've seen specific play designs for Crabtree this year.

The Niners have been able to stretch the secondary deep, getting Crabtree alone underneath to eat up yards. We've also seen that the team likes to involve him in pick plays and get him in space, one-on-one with a defender.

In his fourth year, his game is evolving, as he's becoming an all-around wide receiver. In terms of style, he is not your prototypical big-bodied pass-catcher, but he seems to fit the mold of an Anquan Boldin. A sure-handed, clutch receiver that is awfully physical and dangerous after the catch.

Michael Crabtree's growth this year has been a treat to watch. The telling trait of his legacy will be can he perform consistently - year-to-year, week-to-week?

Follow @DeSimone80

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