By Morris Phillips
Six months and one week after surgery to repair his Achilles, Michael Crabtree made his season debut for the 49ers on Sunday.
Never has rusty looked so lovely… or been so needed.
Crabtree’s return and performance—he made two catches, one for 60 yards after eluding tacklers along the sideline for nearly 40 of those—inspired the 49ers to post a 23-13 win over the Rams in a physical, chippy contest at Candlestick Park.
The 49ers improved to 8-4 on the season, and strengthened their hold on a playoff spot—albeit the No. 6 seed—when the Arizona Cardinals lost in Philadelphia and fell behind San Francisco’s pace. The 49ers now find out if the new look with Crabtree in concert with Vernon Davis, Anquan Boldin and Frank Gore is a winning one with the NFC-leading Seahawks visiting this week.
“No question about it. That was a tough opponent, and all the pressure of the high stakes of this time of the year,” Coach Jim Harbaugh said. “I thought our guys answered the bell on that, and played really well.”
“We all know that December is about winning,” Davis added.
The Rams came in on a roll, sandwiching blowout wins over the Colts and Bears around a bye week, but seemed distracted from the start. First there was the pre-game dust up at midfield that would have to be termed out of character for the business-like 49ers, but seemed to fit the jumpy visitors to a tee. Then the Rams committed seven of their 11 penalties before they scored a point, falling behind 13-0 until their initial points on a field goal in the final minute of the half.
Meanwhile, the 49ers’ offense gained momentum courtesy of Boldin, who produced one of his best games, with nine catches for 98 yards. All the pushing and shoving during and after plays seemed to go hand-in-hand with the 49ers moving the ball down the field. Three lengthy drives, 13 first downs and a couple of Phil Dawson field goals prior to Frank Gore storming in with the game’s first touchdown put the Rams on their heels. Boldin stood out through it all, with six catches in the half, and giving as good as he took in the various skirmishes.
“Yeah they were talking,” Boldin said. “A lot of teams try to build themselves up, and they were one of them. But, you do all your talking on the field.”
“We just needed to get off the field,” Rams defensive tackle Chris Long lamented. “If you don’t (force a) punt in the first half, that’s not good.”
With the comfortable lead, the 49ers were able to pick their spots after halftime, and survive the occasional misstep—including Frank Gore’s fumble—in cruising to the finish. Rams’ quarterback Kellen Clemens—plenty rehearsed and comfortable now that he’s started four times in the absence of injured starter Sam Bradford—never settled in trying to beat the 49ers’ secondary while avoiding the pass rush. Clemens completed just three passes in the first half while getting sacked twice. With time and scoreboard situation taking away Clemens veil of a run game after halftime, he wasn’t much better, rushing a few throws and finishing 19 for 37 without a truly impactful, big play in the bunch.
Meanwhile, Colin Kaepernick figured to benefit from the presence of Crabtree, and while that was clearly the result, the second-year starter also threw the ball beautifully, and looked as settled as he has all season. The Rams sold out to stop the run and Gore, and Kap responded with a 19 for 28 performance for 275 yards, numbers that dwarf his production in recent games.
“They did a good job containing the run. And we made plays in the passing game,” Harbaugh explained. “Colin moving… We had a lot of big plays off the scramble. Either him running it or moving to create space, and I thought he did a great job throwing the ball in those scramble situations. And a terrific play that he made to Vernon, on the naked bootleg.”
The lone negative of the afternoon was a first quarter injury suffered by All-Pro tackle Joe Staley. Crabtree’s protector went down in a heap, but preliminary exams reveal no structural damage to his knee. The team will know more Monday, but it’s unlikely that Staley would be ready to go on Sunday against the Seahawks, which undoubtedly will enliven an already lively Seattle pass rush. Mike Iupati is slated to return after missing a couple of games, but the upheaval won’t help against the 49ers’ chief rival, made even more so by the last two beating the team suffered in Seattle.
After back-to-back losses in November all but ended the race in the NFC West for San Francisco, Sunday’s showdown lost some of its’ luster, but the 49ers’ improved play of late leaves the game on a lofty platform. The 49ers appear to be built for a lengthy playoff run even without the benefit of a home game. Sunday’s big test will be an further indicator of that. But Davis says the team can’t get ahead of its self.
“As much as we want to beat Seattle, we have to keep our composure,” Davis warned. “We can’t get overwhelmed.”