Niners need Crabtree getting more air time Sunday
Everybody knows the list of usual suspects the 49ers will be relying upon in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game – front-line producers such as Vernon Davis, Frank Gore, Justin Smith and Patrick Willis, the same guys who’ve been doing it all season. But to make it to the Super Bowl, it may come down to what the 49ers get from a handful of complementary players who must step up against the Giants.
Here’s six individuals who could figure prominently in the outcome, and why the 49ers will need them in particular to produce to beat the Giants.
1. WR Michael Crabtree
There have been several times this season Crabtree has stepped up and played like a No. 1, go-to wide receiver. And there have been several times he hasn’t. Sunday will have to be a time he does, or else the 49ers could be in trouble on offense. With Ted Ginn Jr. ailing, Delanie Walker a question mark and unprovens Kyle Williams, Brett Swain and Joe Hastings the only other wideouts on the roster, Crabtree could be the only legitimate target to keep some of the pressure of star tight end Vernon Davis, whom the Giants will surely double-team as often as possible after his record-setting outing against New Orleans. Crabtree’s production against the Saints with Davis running wild? Four receptions for 25 yards, even though quarterback Alex Smith sent 10 passes his way. Crabtree flat-out dropped one pass and couldn’t handle two others that were in his hands. He had two catches for 12 yards in the second half as the San Francisco offense sputtered. That won’t get it done in the rematch against the Giants, who limited Crabtree to just one catch in the Week 10 game between the teams.
2. CB Tarell Brown
Playing opposite Pro Bowl starter Carlos Rogers, Brown has been solid throughout the season at right cornerback, and he has had a penchant for making big plays lately, with all five of his interceptions coming in San Francisco’s past five games, including a big pick last week against the Saints. Brown can’t slack off now as the Niners need him playing at that level. Brown will be on the spot Sunday with the Eli Manning show coming to town, as he’ll be matched up often on the edges against the three-headed receiving monster of Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham. Brown gives up size to all of them, particularly Nicks, who beat Brown for a 32-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter of the November game that brought the Giants within a touchdown. Brown is sure to be tested, and it could be often, so he’ll have to hold his own, and maybe even better than that if Manning and Co. keep coming after him.
3. CB Chris Culliver
Culliver has been a notable contributor in San Francisco’s defensive success during a respectable rookie season, but he also has taken his lumps in a sometimes-leaky secondary. He has earned the role as the team’s No. 3 cornerback – where have you gone Shawntae Spencer? – which has put Culliver on the field often in nickel packages. The 49ers figure to be in that package regularly when the Giants attempt to match offensive strength vs. defensive weakness, and Culliver will find himself matched up with those talented and productive New York wideouts, sometimes in man coverage. Culliver will have to win more than he loses when Manning comes his way. Every little inch counts at this stage of the season, and Culliver knows that well. He was in good position down the sideline in man coverage on Marques Colston last week against the Saints, but still was burned for a 25-yard touchdown pass when Drew Brees dropped a perfect throw into Colston’s hands at the right pylon. Culliver had a similar experience against the Giants in November when Manning’s ungodly throw found Manningham in the back of the end zone for a 13-yard score despite fine coverage by Culliver. That game was not one of Culliver’s best days, as Manningham had him beat deep for what would have been a 42-yard, game-tying touchdown late in the fourth quarter before letting Manning’s throw slip off his fingers near the goal line. Culliver will have to do better this time, and he’ll get opportunities to do so because the Giants will be coming after him.
4. OT Anthony Davis
Davis deserves credit this season for his drastic improvement and doing what it takes to make himself into a competent starting tackle in the NFL at age 22. Competent isn’t always enough against the Giants’ formidable front four, however. The Giants are going to count on that unit to get pressure on Alex Smith on passing downs, and there will be many times when New York’s plethora of pass rushers will be given the green light to try and make Smith see red. Davis was strong at right tackle in the November game during his matchup against left end Justin Tuck, who had no tackles or sacks that day. But Davis could see several different rushers flashing at him Sunday if the Giants mix their personnel and/or attempt to overload the right side, like several teams have done this season and the Saints did last week. Left tackle Joe Staley won’t have it easy on the other side, either – the Giants can send ends Tuck (5 sacks this season), Osi Umenyiora (9 sacks), Jason Pierre-Paul (16.5 sacks), Dave Tollefson (5 sacks) and outside linebackers Mathias Kiwanuka (3.5 sacks) and Michael Boley (two sacks last week at Green Bay) flying off the edge at any time – but given the choice of the two, Davis likely is the guy they’ll pick on most often.
5. WR Kyle Wiliams
Ted Ginn Jr. did not practice Wednesday when the 49ers returned to the field to prepare for the Giants. He has a knee injury, and it’s uncertain if he even will be able to play Sunday. Whether Ginn does play or doesn’t, Williams is going to have to provide some level of receiving threat to give the 49ers some balance in their passing game. If the Giants gang up in coverage to stop Davis and Crabtree, that will leave a void that Williams is the top candidate to fill. When called upon this season after other wideouts were injured, Williams proved capable and at times even explosive. But he disappeared into non-factorness in the second half last week against the Saints, when Ginn was injured and Crabtree was the only San Francisco wideout to catch a pass. Williams was thrown to six times in the game but finished with two receptions for 12 yards on the day. The crack-back seal block on Alex Smith’s 28-yard touchdown run was great, but Williams can’t let a block be his biggest contribution Sunday against the Giants.
6. DE Ray McDonald
McDonald was noticeably gimpy last week against the Saints, when he played barely half of San Francisco’s 80 defensive snaps with a right hamstring problem clearly bothering him. McDonald’s name did not appear on the final gamebook defensive statistics sheet, but it seems like that was an oversight as he pushed the pocket several times to get pressure on Drew Brees. But McDonald wasn’t the consistent factor he usually is, and the Niners need him closer to top form in this winner-take-all battle. San Francisco’s defensive front wall has been so good this season because McDonald (5.5 sacks) must be accounted for on a regular basis at left end, forcing opponents to play it honest in protection schemes, allowing Justin Smith (7.5 sacks) and Aldon Smith (14 sacks) to thrive on the right side in passing situations. McDonald surprisingly wasn’t on San Francisco’s injury report Wednesday, meaning he took part in full practice drills. That suggests McDonald is good to go, and the Niners need him to go-go-go at the steady and productive pace he has given them regularly during his career season.