In each of the last two seasons, late in Super Bowl 47 and last year’s conference title game, Kaepernick looked for Crabtree in the right corner of the end zone in do-or-die situations. And on Sunday, he looked for Crabtree again on 4th-and-9 down eight points at the end of regulation, to no avail.
There’s no question Kaepernick feels most comfortable throwing to No. 15, whether it’s warranted or not. Arguments could be made Anquan Boldin was open on the last play Sunday, as he might have been on the play Kaepernick’s lofted pass was tipped by Seahawks corner Richard Sherman and picked by linebacker Malcolm Smith in January.
Meanwhile Boldin and Vernon Davis caught 20 of Kaepernick’s 21 touchdown passes in the regular season.
Across the board, the Bears had sound man-to-man coverage on that final snap. Converting would have required a perfect throw regardless of the target. After the loss put the 49ers at 1-1, a game behind first-place Arizona, Crabtree said he should have caught the ball. It hit his hands on his way to the ground and he had a second chance after it was juggled momentarily.
"No, I don’t think so," offensive coordinator Greg Roman said when asked if Kaepernick is too reliant on Crabtree in key situations. "I think he needs to throw the ball to the appropriate place. And if it’s single coverage across the board, you want to find your best matchup."
Sunday that match up was Crabtree on Tim Jennings, Chicago’s best corner after Charles Tillman left the game earlier with a triceps injury. Last winter, Kaepernick liked the match up on Sherman, easily Seattle’s best corner and one of the best defensive players in the NFL.
"The different routes people run might have different leverage," Roman said. "For example, if it’s man coverage and everybody has outside technique, you’re probably going to try to work to the route that’s breaking in. If they have inside technique, you probably want to work to the route that’s breaking out. So, it’s not only ‘who’, but it’s ‘what’."
With that Roman intimated going over the middle to Crabtree Sunday, inside of the coverage that was leveraged outside, was the right call.
"(We) got the look we wanted, we just have to make that play," a dejected Kaepernick said post game.
In the second half of the 28-20 loss, the Bears defense went into disguise mode. A key characteristic of Roman’s offense has been for Kaepernick to get most of his diagnosing done before the snap, checking to the right play in order to simplify things once the ball is snapped.
Chicago was stacking their linebackers at the line of scrimmage, sometimes blitzing, sometimes dropping into coverage. But Kaepernick didn’t know until after the ball was snapped. Defenses will use a volume of those disguised looks against the 49ers going forward after seeing Kaepernick’s struggles Sunday.
"We expect good teams to do that," fullback Bruce Miller said. "Not many teams are just going to line up and show their hand and let you run all over them, or just tear them apart in the passing game. They’re going to mix it up a little bit and they’re going to show different stuff and play something else."
How can offenses prepare for those looks? The film room, for one. And going against coordinator Vic Fangio's disguise-heavy defense three times a week on the practice field and throughout training camp doesn’t hurt either.
"Our defense, they do a great job disguising, showing one thing and doing something different. We have good practice with it," Miller said. "I feel like we’re well prepared. We’re going to be Sunday. Whatever they show us we’ll be able to adjust and make plays."
The pre-snap diagnosing has allowed Kaepernick to be very effective against the blitz. Through two games, Kaepernick has a 129 passer rating against extra pass rushers. When defenses rush four and drop seven into coverage, his rating dives to 65.7, per Pro Football Focus. Kaepernick finished last season with 103.2 and 85.1 passer ratings in those cases, respectively. All three of his interceptions Sunday came on plays the Bears did not blitz.
The Cardinals defense blitzed on 49 percent of pass plays last year, in line with their 50-percent clip through two games in 2014. In two meetings in 2013, they blitzed San Francisco on 80 percent of Kaepernick’s passes. He threw for 562 yards, four TDs and was intercepted once, good for 102.74 rating in those two wins.
If Kaepernick is going to single out Crabtree in a key situation, facing the Cardinals might be the time to do it. Crabtree has four touchdown catches in his last three games against Arizona, matching up against ace corner Patrick Peterson.
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