Drafted in the first round three years apart, it took Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree a bit longer than expected to catch on as difference-makers in the 49ers’ passing game. Davis got there a few years ago, while Crabtree gradually ascended to that lofty platform this season. The 49ers will need both playmakers to be there Saturday for a passing game lacking other true impact receiving options.
In all likelihood, the 49ers probably will have to throw the ball more than usual to keep pace with New Orleans in their NFC playoff semifinal showdown at Candlestick Park.
More specifically, they will have to strike through the air for more big plays than was seen from an offense that never had a 300-yard passing game all season and finished with 18 touchdown passes, a pedestrian figure in this era of air-it-out offense.
Particularly now that it’s the Saints who will be on the other side of the football. New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees threw for 300 or more yards 13 times during the regular season – topping 350 yards passing eight times. He threw for 46 touchdowns, then added 466 yards and three more touchdowns passing during the Saints’ 45-28 romp over Detroit in last week’s playoff opener, when New Orleans rolled to 626 yards of total offense.
With their impact defense, truly a unit that can control the tempo of games, the 49ers will do everything within their formidable power to make sure Saturday’s game doesn’t turn into a scoreathon decided by offense.
But you’ve got to assume the Saints and their record-setting offense will score some points and at least have some measure of success when they possess the football.
And with erstwhile top threat Braylon Edwards long gone and No. 2 tight end option Delanie Walker on the bench recovering from a broken jaw, it is on Davis and Crabtree to step up and deliver to help the San Francisco offense keep up in the biggest NFL game of their lives.
“We’ve been working since I’ve been here to make the playoffs,” said Davis, the No. 6 overall selection of the 2006 NFL draft. “We’ve come a long way. This is what it’s all about. Live or die.”
For San Francisco to survive, it will have to give Davis and Crabtree opportunities to be the difference-makers each has proven he can be this season.
Davis has been doing it since his breakout season of 2009, when he led the 49ers with 78 receptions for 965 yards and 13 touchdowns, tying a NFL record for tight ends, while being named the NFC’s starting tight end in the Pro Bowl. He led San Francisco in all three receiving categories again last season, becoming the first tight end ever to do so.
Crabtree, finally, has been doing it in his third NFL season, particularly as the year progressed and it was up to him to carry a depleted corps of wide receivers.
Crabtree finished as San Francisco’s leader this year with career-high totals in both receptions (73) and receiving yards (880). That placed Crabtree only 24th and 33rd in the NFL in those two categories, respectively, but it represented a breakthrough for him after two up-and-down seasons to begin his career after the Niners selected him with the No. 10 overall pick of the 2009 draft.
“Playing against those guys like Drew Brees, all those receivers they have, it’s a challenge,” Crabtree said. “You want to bring you’re A-game. It’s a bigger stage now.”
It’s a bigger stage for Crabtree, who figures to get a lot of attention from the New Orleans defense, considering the other four wide receivers on San Francisco’s playoff roster combined for just 41 receptions for 476 yards and three touchdowns this season. Behind Crabtree and Davis, Kyle Williams was third on the team in both receptions (20) and receiving yards (241).
The Saints, in contrast, had seven players with 32 or more receptions this season and six players with 500 or more receiving yards. Those sheer numbers alone suggest this isn’t a game the 49ers want to see turn into a shootout.
But if it does, Davis and Crabtree will have to be ready. Davis said both will be.
“This is the most excited I’ve ever been in the NFL,” Davis said. “And Crabtree, he’s a special guy. He is a playmaker. He can make plays all of the time. Whatever we ask him to do, he will do it. It’s taken a little time, but it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”
And when San Francisco needed a spark during the December stretch run to finish with a three-game winning streak and secure the NFC’s No. 2 playoff seed, that duo provided it.
Crabtree finished the season with 13 receptions for 171 yards and two TDs in San Francisco’s final two games, finishing off one of the best months of his career. Davis finished with a flurry of 18 catches for 244 yards over the final three weeks, including a season-high 118 yards receiving in the season finale at St. Louis.
The Niners need that production to continue – and perhaps even accelerate – with the Saints coming to town.
This is an opportunity for both former No. 1 picks to step up on the big stage, and the Niners will need that to happen to prevent their first trip to the postseason in nine years from being nothing more than a one-and-done excursion.
“You get one shot,” Davis said, “or you’re out of there. We just have to do our job, take our responsibilities and just keep the ball moving, score touchdowns in the red zone. We really have to attack these guys. Win your battle and compete.”