In all 53 career games, Crabtree has been involved in the 49ers passing game. Many of those receptions have come on third down as the 6-foot-1, 214-pound leading wideout has established himself as one of the league’s best receivers on the crucial down.
Time and time again when the 49ers need to move the chains on third down, Crabtree’s number is often called.
Crabtree ranks tied for first in the NFL with four of his six touchdown receptions coming on third down. He also ranks tied for the third-most, third-down receptions with 23 in 11 games.
“Michael’s a really good football player,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said on Thursday. “Mike’s got great hands. I think Coach (Harbaugh) said he’s got the best hands he’s ever seen. We marvel at his hands every day in practice. He’s a natural catcher; we can’t take credit for that. The guy’s got great hands.”
But it’s more than just hands enabling Crabtree’s third-down heroics.
Crabtree’s production comes into even more focus this week against the St. Louis Rams, the same team he’s scored against in his last five outings against the NFC West division foe.
In doing so, he’ll have to continue the streak with a new quarterback.
“Let’s go play some ball,” Crabtree the consummate, self-described “football player” said on Wednesday. “That’s (been) two games with Kap, right? It’s time to go play ball.”
Regardless of quarterback, Crabtree has remained productive in his fourth season with the 49ers. He leads the team with 50 receptions for 567 yards and five touchdown receptions.
“I’m not surprised about anything,” Crabtree said of the team’s decision to give Kaepernick a third consecutive start. “I just go out there and play my position. Whoever the quarterback is, I’m just going out there to make plays.”
Crabtree and Kaepernick aren’t far removed from their collegiate careers. In 2009, the two faced off when Crabtree’s Texas Tech team defeated Kaepernick’s University of Nevada squad, 35-19.
Both performed well that day. Crabtree scored a game-breaking, 82-yard touchdown pass to go along with seven catches for 158 yards. Kaepernick, himself, performed well in defeat, passing for 264 yards and rushing for 92 more.
Crabtree remembers the game quite well. In fact, he remembers Kaepernick’s competitiveness standing out even more than pure athleticism. That’s when he knew Kaepernick was a unique talent.
“The guy was putting up points and running – the same thing he’s doing now,” Crabtree said.
Kaepernick left college as one of the most prolific mobile passers in NCAA history. He was also the only passer to throw for more than 10,000 yards and rush for more than 4,000 in a career.
Such athletic play-making will be challenged on Sunday against a Rams defense that fared well against Kaepernick in backup duty when the teams last met. Although it was a 24-24 tie, the experience benefitted the young quarterback who is 2-0 as a starter.
Even with a change under center, Crabtree remained positive about of the team’s top signal-callers.
“They’re quarterbacks,” he explained. “They’re running the whole offense. I don’t like to compare them. They’re both good. Like I said, whoever is behind center, I’m trying to make plays for them.”
On Sunday, that’ll come against a Rams defense that ranks 16th in pass defense allowing 229.5 yards per game. The unit, however, is coming off a two-touchdown performance last week in a 31-17 win over Arizona. Rookie corner Janoris Jenkins returned two Cardinals interceptions for touchdowns in a winning road effort.
Crabtree will undoubtedly look to extend his touchdown streak against St. Louis, but more so, will continue his dominant ways on third down.
When the team needed a big play in a key third-down last week, Crabtree delivered on a 15-yard reception on a well-thrown Kaepernick pass.
“It was a simple corner route, something we practice,” Crabtree detailed. “I knew Kap was going to throw me the ball. We needed the first down. So really we were on the same page, trying to make a play.”
So how did Crabtree know the ball was coming his way?
“Because I was open.”
Crabtree conceded that he dropped a low pass last week and that it takes sharp concentration to catch the tightly thrown spirals from Kaepernick.
“The guy can throw the ball real fast,” Crabtree added. “It’s hard, too. You’ve got to concentrate.”
Crabtree considers the new starter to be a “gamer.”
“Sometimes guys don’t look too good in practice but are just gamers. It’s like that sometimes,” Crabtree detailed. “It’s like that on defense, where you have guys that just know one speed, and that’s go. I think that’s how Kap is at quarterback. He just knows one speed and that’s go.”
With Kaepernick under center, Crabtree remains confident about the team reaching all of its goals.
“We’re capable of doing anything,” Crabtree said. “With the defense we have, whoever is playing quarterback. I’m just loving the fact that we’re trying to get in the end zone and he’s just trying to make plays. The guy, he’s really showing he can be a starter in this league. All I’m doing is going out playing wide receiver and trying to make plays with the guy.”