Crabtree has become the 49ers' go-to wide receiver
Michael Crabtree didn’t exactly call out his teammates before last week’s game against the Detroit Lions, but he did issue a challenge to his offensive comrades to keep up with the high standard of performance being put forth regularly by San Francisco’s rugged defense and superior special teams units. Crabtree certainly has lived up to that standard himself during the Niners’ 2-0 start.
It was a natural moment for Crabtree to address his 49ers teammates — on his 25th birthday last Friday.
When asked to say a few words on the field after practice, Crabtree kindly obliged. And he surprised a few of his San Francisco colleagues with a spot-on message: The defense has been doing so much to carry San Francisco, he called for the offense to match that performance.
"He broke it down with some pretty powerful words for us on offense," left tackle Joe Staley said. "He said: 'We have this defense and we can't depend on this defense anymore. It's time to step up as an offense.' And I think everybody kind of took that to heart."
Coach Jim Harbaugh presented the wide receiver with a celebratory red velvet cupcake and hand-written card, a regular gesture for players' birthdays.
Two days later, Crabtree did his part to make good on his challenge to the team — delivering three third-down conversion catches in a 27-19 win by the 49ers (2-0) over the Lions.
Crabtree led the 49ers in receiving for the second game in a row to start the season, pulling in six catches for 67 yards against the Lions. Crabtree led San Francisco with seven receptions for 76 yard in its 30-22 season-opening victor at Green Bay.
Crabtree’s teammates certainly appreciated the thoughtful words Friday as much as they did the big plays Sunday.
"The defense gets a lot of credit, deservedly so," quarterback Alex Smith said. "Especially last season, they played at a really high level. (He) talked a lot about offense. If you can get offense, defense and special teams all rolling, you know how scary it can be. Michael is the guy who has been there, worked extremely hard. He continues to work extremely hard, and our guys look to him."
Crabtree is healthy at last, and showing his ability to make athletic possession receptions under pressure and extend plays after the catch. Detroit's aggressive, physical defense was just his style, if you ask Harbaugh.
"I think he secretly hopes it comes down to that," Harbaugh said. "I think he likes that physical part of the game because he thrives on it so well. And he's a tough, tough guy that will suck it up in a heartbeat."
Crabtree's early 17-yard catch on the left sideline set up a 21-yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis that put the 49ers on the scoreboard 2 minutes, 35 seconds into the game.
"A lot of things can be momentum changers in the game. That was one," Crabtree said. "I get hyped every weekend about football. This is my job. I don't see big play. I just see catch the ball, every play. I wish I could tell you something special."
Against the Lions, Crabtree converted on third down with receptions of 7, 16 and 11 yards — all in the fourth quarter. Now, the Niners' No. 10 overall pick in the 2009 draft out of Texas Tech has 13 catches through two games for 143 yards. Crabtree and fellow wideout Randy Moss are complementing each other as well as anybody could ask for — and pulling some defenders away from Davis.
"As long as he's healthy, I feel that he's one of the top guys in the league," running back Frank Gore said of Crabtree. "He can do everything — catch, be physical, tough, yards after the catch, he blocks. This doesn't surprise me at all what Michael Crabtree's doing."
Crabtree has avoided the spotlight as best he can since arriving in the NFL with huge expectations, albeit after a 71-day contract stalemate his rookie season before he finally signed his contract that October. By Oct. 25 at Houston, he had cracked the starting lineup in his professional debut.
Crabtree, who has long had the reputation of being a diva, was angrily confronted by Davis during an early September practice two years ago and then-coach Mike Singletary had to step between them. There have been no such known issues since, and Davis has supported him.
Crabtree led San Francisco with career-high totals of 72 receptions for 874 yards and had four touchdown catches in 2011, helping the 49ers return to the playoffs for the first time in nine years.
While he did miss a week of training camp this summer, he was on the field more than he had been in any previous preseason because of injuries.
"Alex had a lot of criticism, too, but he never paid any attention to that stuff. I know Crabtree is the same way," Staley said. "And I don't think the criticism that he was getting was fair. I think it was all perception. They called him a 'diva' and all that stuff. That's never anything that people who have been around him have ever thought. He's always been a guy that's been very, very professional. He might not have had the success he wanted early, but it wasn't because of that."
Often in shades and scurrying through the locker room to get to meetings or practice, Crabtree is always focused on work. With a few jokes for his teammates now and then.
"He's not a talkative person," Gore said, "but I know when he gets in front and says something that he means it."
Moss has taken notice. A player who has long been dogged by his reputation during various NFL stops, he can relate some to his younger teammate. Moss has set an example for Crabtree, and they constantly push each other in practice.
"Crabtree's been through a lot," Moss said. "For him to be able to stand up and bring us together and say, 'the offense needs to match the defense,' we really felt it. And then to come out here and make plays, that's something you can really hang your hat on and follow a guy like that."