Each day this week, Baltimore Sun reporter and blogger Matt Vensel will break down a key matchup from Sunday's
The Ravens ran through a gauntlet of
Michael Crabtree might not have the wow factor and name value of some of those other guys, but few
That's why Crabtree isn't flying under the Ravens' radar.
“He’s big, physical, and he can catch. He understands where he is on the field. The dude understands the game. To see him come on -- what is this, his fourth year? -- the guy is a great talent,” strong safety
THE EVOLUTION OF CRABTREE
Crabtree, like many young wide receivers, came along slowly in his first three NFL seasons, but still, the development was steady for the 10th overall pick in the 2009
Crabtree was productive with
The biggest difference has been where Kaepernick is finding Crabtree on the field. According to ESPN Stats and Info, Kaepernick has targeted Crabtree outside the numbers at least five times in each of their past six games, including the postseason, something Smith didn't do once during his nine starts.
"Crabtree has gotten better every year and gotten more confident every year, but I think their passing attack has changed since Kaepernick has now come in. It's not just a shot play every now and then on play-action with the 49ers, which was primarily the case when Alex Smith was the quarterback," ESPN's Ron Jaworski said. "They now attack down the field and the intermediate area has been very strong with Michael Crabtree. ... Crabtree has gotten better because the quarterback now has a strong arm that can fit the ball into those tight areas, and they're more willing to call plays that attack the deep areas of the field."
With a more-polished game and a young quarterback who can help him get the most out of his ability, Crabtree finished the regular season with career highs in receptions (85), receiving yards (1,105) and touchdowns (nine). He has tacked on 15 more catches for 176 yards and two scores in two playoff games.
RAVENS SECONDARY STEPS UP
In the first half of the regular season, the Ravens allowed an average of 246.8 passing yards. In the season’s second half, they allowed 209.5 passing yards per game. Williams and Graham had a lot to do with that, but the return of
"[We are] one unit. Through all our ups and down, like you all said, we've stuck together," Suggs said last week. "We always believed, and we kept our eyes on the prize, and that's what we just kept doing."
The Ravens have allowed big passing yards in the playoffs, but they aren’t allowing high point totals. And they also picked off
DOING DAMAGE CONTROL
In recent weeks, the Ravens have had mixed results against top wide receivers. They limited the damage done by New York’s Victor Cruz, Cincinnati’s A.J. Green (in one half), and Denver’s Demaryius Thomas, but Indianapolis’
The Ravens are wary of Crabtree, too, and are especially cognizant of the fact that they can't let him wiggle free after he makes the catch. Crabtree was fourth in the NFL with 543 yards after the catch, according to Pro Football Focus. His 6.4 yards-after-the-catch average ranked 12th among wide receivers.
"He's just a big, stronger guy. He can break tackles, get the YAC yardage," said Pollard, growing increasingly intense as he talked. "We have to be sound in what we're doing with everybody on their team, but with him, on the outside, our cornerbacks have to be smart and get their hands on him. If you get any quick passes, they're going to have to tackle him. If they don't, we as a defense, we have to rally."
Added Williams: "He's a great route runner. I think he has great hands, strong hands at the catch. He's able to pluck the ball out of the air and he has great body control. He's great at running after the catch, man. He's done an unbelievable job for that organization and we're going to try to slow him down as best as possible."
The Ravens normally don’t match up on individual receivers, and they aren’t likely to change that in the Super Bowl. Typically, Williams is at right corner and Graham is at left corner in two-wide sets, and when offenses try to spread the field with three or more wide receivers, Graham will move inside to the slot with Smith or
That means the 49ers, who move Crabtree all over their formations, can dictate his matchups. So similar to what Suggs said before, it will take a collective effort -- not just one man -- to slow down Crabtree.