Leading up to Sunday's Divisional Playoff Game, the major question was whether the Carolina Panthers could man handle the San Francisco 49ers as they did 8 weeks ago now that San Francisco had a healthy Michael Crabtree in the lineup. In their previous meeting, Colin Kaepernick was without two of his top playmakers. Crabtree was still sidelined, and Vernon Davis left before halftime with a concussion. The absences showed as the 49ers were held under a 100 yards passing and surrendered 6 sacks.
Since that humbling defeat, Crabtree has returned and rediscovered the form that had 49ers fans so excited last spring for year two of the Kaepernick offense. In the Wild Card Round we all got a reminder of what it was like having a true number one receiver as Crabtree dominated the Packers secondary with 8 catches for 125 yards. It reminded the 49er faithful of the value of a dynamic playmaker on the outside.
On Sunday, Crabtree had an obvious impact on the game despite being held to 3 catches for 27 yards. While he wasn't hauling in passes and moving the chains he was the focal point of their defense and occupied the multiple defenders thus opening opportunities downfield that were glaringly absent when he was out injured.
The main benefactor of Crabtree's presence was Anquan Boldin, as he often faced single coverage or was able to slip unnoticed into the holes of zones defenses. In addition Boldin solidified his reputation as the toughest wide out in the NFL with broken tackles, head butts and generally being a bad ass in a game that was chippy throughout.
Let's look at how the Panthers focus on Crabtree allowed Boldin to become the main feature of the 49ers passing game with 8 catches for 136 yards and what to expect next week vs the Seahawks.
Game Situation: 3rd Quarter, 10:01, 1st and 10 at the CAR 47, Panthers 10, 49ers 13
Offensive Personnel: 2 WR (Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin) 1 TE (Vernon Davis,) 1 RB (Frank Gore, Anthony Dixon)
Formation: Single Back Pistol
Offensive Concept: Go Route
Defensive Scheme: Cover 3
Pre-Snap: The 49ers are in a single back Pistol formation with TE Davis and RB Dixon aligned in wing positions on each end of the offensive line. Both WR Crabtree and WR Boldin are spilt out wide to the left and right respectively. The Panthers show a single high safety before rolling their coverage over WR Crabtree just before the snap.
Post-Snap: Both sides of the formation release on the same route combination, a Go route by the WR and a flat route underneath by the TE (and RB Dixon in this instance). With the safety sliding left pre snap, QB Kaepernick is looking right the entire way as there is no help over the top for CB Captain Munnerlyn. Making matters worse for the Panthers is CB Munnerlyn focusing on TE Davis's waiting to drive forward on the flat route and letting WR Boldin run right by him after a few subtle moves.
Once behind CB Munnerlyn, QB Kaepernick lets loose a deep throw down the right sideline for WR Boldin to run under. With no safety help over the top, WR Boldin catches the ball uncontested at the 15 yard line before being brought down by CB Munnerlyn at the 2 yard line.
Summary: While this play was ultimately successful because of a blown coverage of sorts by Captain Munnerlyn, the Panthers showed their respect for Crabtree by rolling the coverage his way pre snap. With no safety over the top Anquan was able blow by Munnerlyn for an easy 45 yard catch that led to a huge touchdown that put the 49ers in the driver seat.
This will certainly not be the case next week as the Seahawks tend to play with a S Earl Thomas in a single center safety relying on their excellent corners to handle the outside routes single handedly. Additionally, expect the 49ers to attack the left side of the field, 16 of the 20 passes outside the numbers were towards the left last time the Seahawks and 49ers met, as Richard Sherman plays exclusively at left corner (right offensive side).
Game Situation: 3rd Quarter, 12:49, 2nd and 6 at the SF 27, Panthers 10, 49ers 13
Offensive Personnel: 2 WR (Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin) 2 TE (Vernon Davis, Vance McDonald) 1 RB (Frank Gore)
Formation: Pistol Strong
Offensive Concept: Dig Route
Defensive Scheme: Cover 3
Pre-Snap: The 49ers are in a strong Pistol formation with TE Davis and WR Boldin spilt 5 and 8 yards outs to the left respectively. On the weak side, WR Crabtree is spilt out to the numbers by himself. The Panthers respond in their base 4-3 defense playing Cover 3 with CB Melvin White using a press coverage technique on WR Crabtree.
Post-Snap: After taking a 5 step drop, QB Kaepernick looks right towards WR Crabtree who has released inside of CB White. Seeing this in his zone coverage, LB Luke Kuechly slides left to take away the inside throw to WR Crabtree.
With the defense flooding over towards WR Crabtree on the right side, QB Kaepernick slides his vision towards the middle of the field while climbing forward in the pocket. Both TE Davis and WR Boldin, who were aligned tightly to begin with, break inwards on a post route and a dig route respectively. Creating space for these routes is the check down options of TE McDonald and RB Gore, both of which prevent the underneath zones from taking away the downfield routes by continuing to drop.
As the defense is pulled by the actions of RB Gore, TE McDonald and WR Crabtree a window opens up for WR Boldin's dig route in between 4 defenders. Displaying excellent anticipation, QB Kapernick delivers a strike that barley clears the underneath defenders before finding a sliding WR Boldin.
Summary: Again the Panthers put extra emphasis on stopping Crabtree with press coverage and inside help from Kuechly which allows Boldin to take advantage of the soft coverage elsewhere. His veteran presence showed as he found the soft spot in the zone and made himself available as a second option. Also, this play was a great illustration of how Kaepernick is progressing as a quarterback as he climbed forward in the pocket, which not only gave his receivers additional time to get open but helped him maintain proper footwork required to fit the the ball into a tight window downfield.
These are the type of plays the 49ers will need against the Seahawks next week. Richard Sherman and Co. are an elite defense that will routinely takes away an offense's first option, forcing their opponent to create plays with their secondary or even tertiary receiver. Luckily for the 49ers, Kaepernick has showed great improvement in progressing through his reads and creating positive plays when his 1st read is covered as the season has progressed. While gathering more experience is part of that growth, a key factor that is often overlooked is finally having a healthy set of receivers that he is comfortable with and can create separation.
Game Situation: 4th Quarter, 10:51, 2nd and 10 at the CAR 27, Panthers 10, 49ers 20
Offensive Personnel: 1 WR (Anquan Boldin) 2 TE (Garret Celek, Vance McDonald) 2 RB (Kendal Hunter, Anthony Dixon)
Formation: Power I
Offensive Concept: Play Action High-Low
Defensive Scheme: Cover 3
Pre-Snap: The 49ers motion TE McDonald from the left wing position to behind RG Alex Boone to form a power I formation. Expecting run given formation and game situation, the Panthers pack the box with 9 defenders and play press coverage on WR Boldin with a single high safety.
Post-Snap: A quick play fake with RB Hunter sucks up the defense with the hopes of hitting TE Celek on the corner route or RB Dixon in the flat. On the outside, WR Boldin beats the jam of CB White with ease before starting across the field on a drag route.
With the Panthers defense accounting for TE Celek and RB Dixon properly, QB Kaepernick is forced to progress to his 3rd option, WR Boldin's drag route. Knowing the Panthers are scrambling off the play fake, WR Boldin simply slides right with his quarterback in the pocket of the zone providing an outlet.
QB Kaepernick sees WR Boldin become open and hits him with a quick pass that looks to gain 5 or 6 yards. Yet WR Boldin shows his strength by spinning out a of LB Kuechly tackle to pick up an additionally 3 yards and give the 49ers a manageable 3rd and 1.
Summary: My favorite play of the day by a country mile and the kind of effort and toughness that has fans already wanting the 49ers to resign Anquan Boldin. And this was far from an isolated incident Sunday as he tormented the Panthers will both his play and trash talk. Yet this was the most impressive on the day by Boldin as he shrugged off the potential defensive player of the year in Kuechly to create an easy 3rd down conversion and shattered the Panthers hopes completely.
With the Legion of Boom up next, the 49ers will surely need to bring some of this attitude if they want to be successful. Not only will creating, more likely surviving, after the catch be important but the ability to beat press coverage and make tough catches in traffic will be huge Sunday.
Since Boldin joined the 49ers last spring, I have heard dozens of coaches, teammates and media members try and describe his play and what he means to the 49ers. Despite their personal relationship with him or years of journalistic experience, not a single person properly captured what makes Anquan the player he is, until I heard Bill Romanowski after Sunday's game. He, in a way only Romanowski can do, summed up Anquan's play brilliantly with the statement "(he) is out there kicking people's asses". While that might seem a like a meat head comment coming from one of the ultimate meat heads, it perfectly captures what Anquan Boldin did to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday and how he has become the perfect player for the 49er offense.
Throughout the Harbaugh Era the 49ers have had a glaring weakness at the wide out position. Whether it was Brett Swain starting in the 2011 NFC Championship or a washed up and unenthused Randy Moss last year, the 49ers have lacked enough weapons to complement their bruising rushing attack. This year started no different but since Crabtree's return after Week 12 the 49ers have finally found a balanced offense and have won eight straight.
Sunday highlighted how the return of one player can transform an offense so drastically. Without Crabtree opposing defenses would force the 49ers into throwing the ball by stacking the box with 8 or 9 defenders knowing the 49ers lacked the personnel to burn them on the outside. Add in a dynamic playmaker like Crabtree and all of the sudden the 49ers have a complete offense capable of taking what the defense gives them. In Sunday's case the Panthers took away Crabtree with double teams and safety help allowing the 49ers to feast on the coverage Boldin was facing.
The last 34 minutes of the Panthers game was as dominating a performance as one could expect this late in January. Grinding drives of 13, 12, 9 and 8 plays broke the Panthers, and the driving force behind those colossal drives was Anquan Boldin. Not only has he become Kaepernick's safety value, as multiple throws to Boldin were second and third reads, he embodies what the 49ers have become a mean, physical, intimidating force. A force that will be tested Sunday in Seattle.