There is a very new San Francisco 49ers team taking the field.
From an opposing team's perspective, it was bad enough they had to game plan around this tenacious defense. But as of recent, it's been the 49ers' offense that has begun to strike fear in their opponent.
It's no secret that Colin Kaepernick's emergence as the quarterback has led to this evolution. But what has been even more special is that his presence has contributed to the blossoming of several others - particularly Michael Crabtree.
In eight games with Colin Kaepernick, No. 15 has accumulated a whopping 50 receptions for 714 yards and seven touchdowns. In their four most productive games together (St. Louis, New England, Arizona and Green Bay), Crabtree racked up 499 yards and six touchdowns.
Crabtree continued his hot streak on Saturday versus the Packers, going over 100 yards for the 4th time with Kaepernick, and scoring twice. Following the game, 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh had this to say about the team's No. 1 wide out:
I think it's pretty well-documented how vital he is. Again, he was outstanding. The back-shoulder catches, those are great plays. The catch and runs again. The yards that he gets after the catch. He's really like a running back when he gets the ball in his hands. And he was outstanding.
An though he played well the past couple seasons, only over these past 8 games has he really played like the prize first-rounder everyone thought he'd be. His game has been extremely sharp in nearly every facet.
This weekend will bring about another tough match-up, as San Francisco's offense will once again have to produce big. The Atlanta Falcons have been able to ride their stacked offense to the NFC Championship game. But what's helped them get even further this year is the help they've added on the backend.
The Falcons have an opportunistic secondary, but they are not without their flaws.
According to Pro Football Focus, Dunta Robinson allowed 835 yards in coverage during the regular season, which was 6th-most amongst all cornerbacks. And when targeted, he also allowed a 102.4 QB rating. And Asante Samuel also had 18 missed tackles during the regular season, which tied the most of any cornerback in 2012, via Jeff Deeney of PFF.
Right away, there's a few identifiable ways Crabtree is going to help this offense versus the Falcons.
1. Crabtree as a blocker
He has been a tremendous asset in the run game, which often goes overlooked. He will be matched up with much less physical defensive backs, who will also be at a size disadvantage. Aside from helping Frank Gore bust runs, Crabtree will be a beast on the edge when the Niners deploy the read-option.
2. Crabtree as a YAC machine
This match-up does not bode well for Robinson (yards allowed) or Samuel (tackles missed). Once Crabtree has the ball in his hands, he runs like a man possessed. As a wide receiver, the effort he gives after the catch is incomparable to others in this league.
3. Crabtree as an aggressive hands receiver
Samuel has missed tackles but is a great cover corner. But the great thing about Kaepernick and Crabtree as a duo, is that the quarterback is confident to put the ball on his receiver even when he's covered. Michael Crabtree says, "that's why you call it a play-maker." Crabtree should be snatching balls out of the air as usual.
In Sunday's NFC Championship game, Michael Crabtree has an excellent opportunity to continue his hot streak and find redemption. He is still sour over his performance in last year's conference title. It will be interesting to see how he performs in the same game a year later.
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