Each day this week, Baltimore Sun reporter and blogger Matt Vensel will break down a key matchup from Sunday's Super Bowl. Today, he looks at how the Ravens might handle 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree.
The Ravens ran through a gauntlet of Pro Bowl quarterbacks on their way to the Super Bowl, but they chased after several elite wide receivers on the way there, too. The Ravens defensive backs had to worry about matchup nightmares such as A.J. Green, Demaryius Thomas, Dez Bryant and Victor Cruz, and they will face another one -- his name might surprise you -- when they play the San Francisco 49ers on Super Sunday.
Michael Crabtree might not have the wow factor and name value of some of those other guys, but few NFL wide receivers have been more productive since the start of November. The fourth-year wide-out has matured -- well, on the field at least -- and he was one of five players with at least 85 catches, 1,100 receiving yards and nine touchdowns during the regular season. The others? Green, Thomas, Bryant and Brandon Marshall.
That's why Crabtree isn't flying under the Ravens' radar.
"He's big, physical, and he can catch. He understands where he is on the field. The dude understands the game. To see him come on -- what is this, his fourth year? -- the guy is a great talent," strong safety Bernard Pollard said last week. "I think a lot of people take his speed lightly, but the guy can flat-out run. To see where he's at in his career right now and where he has come from, the guy is a special talent."
THE EVOLUTION OF CRABTREE
Crabtree, like many young wide receivers, came along slowly in his first three NFL seasons, but still, the development was steady for the 10th overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft. His targets, receptions and receiving yards all increased from one season to the next, and the former Texas Tech standout flashed signs of a potential breakout last season, finishing with 85 catches for 874 yards and four touchdowns.
Crabtree was productive with Alex Smith under center, but he really clicked with Colin Kaepernick when he replaced Smith in Week 11. In the past 10 games, Crabtree has 57 receptions for 771 yards and seven touchdowns, second-most in the NFL over that span, according to ESPN Stats and Info. In the past seven games, he has scored six touchdowns and averaged seven catches and 102 receiving yards.
The biggest difference has been where Kaepernick is finding Crabtree on the field. According to ESPN Stats and Info, Kaepernick has targeted Crabtree outside the numbers at least five times in each of their past six games, including the postseason, something Smith didn't do once during his nine starts.
"Crabtree has gotten better every year and gotten more confident every year, but I think their passing attack has changed since Kaepernick has now come in. It's not just a shot play every now and then on play-action with the 49ers, which was primarily the case when Alex Smith was the quarterback," ESPN's Ron Jaworski said. "They now attack down the field and the intermediate area has been very strong with Michael Crabtree. ... Crabtree has gotten better because the quarterback now has a strong arm that can fit the ball into those tight areas, and they're more willing to call plays that attack the deep areas of the field."
With a more-polished game and a young quarterback who can help him get the most out of his ability, Crabtree finished the regular season with career highs in receptions (85), receiving yards (1,105) and touchdowns (nine). He has tacked on 15 more catches for 176 yards and two scores in two playoff games.
RAVENS SECONDARY STEPS UP
When Lardarius Webb crumbled to the turf in Week 6 with a torn ACL, robbing the Ravens of a promising, young cornerback whom they had recently awarded with a five-year, $50 million contract extension, the future looked bleak for a defense that was already struggling to defend the pass. It looked even worse when his replacement, Jimmy Smith, struggled in the next two games and then was sidelined with a hernia.
But cornerbacks Cary Williams and Corey Graham, two of Ozzie Newsome's savviest signings of the past few years, stepped up. Williams, a starter since 2011, bounced back from a rocky start in a contract year to play well at right cornerback. Graham, signed this past offseason primarily to play special teams, has started on the left the past 11 games for the Ravens and has arguably been their best defensive back.
In the first half of the regular season, the Ravens allowed an average of 246.8 passing yards. In the season's second half, they allowed 209.5 passing yards per game. Williams and Graham had a lot to do with that, but the return of Terrell Suggs and the emergence of Paul Kruger were also significant factors.
"[We are] one unit. Through all our ups and down, like you all said, we've stuck together," Suggs said last week. "We always believed, and we kept our eyes on the prize, and that's what we just kept doing."
The Ravens have allowed big passing yards in the playoffs, but they aren't allowing high point totals. And they also picked off Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady a total of five times in three games.
DOING DAMAGE CONTROL
In recent weeks, the Ravens have had mixed results against top wide receivers. They limited the damage done by New York's Victor Cruz, Cincinnati's A.J. Green (in one half), and Denver's Demaryius Thomas, but Indianapolis' Reggie Wayne and New England's Wes Welker each topped 100 receiving yards against them.
The Ravens are wary of Crabtree, too, and are especially cognizant of the fact that they can't let him wiggle free after he makes the catch. Crabtree was fourth in the NFL with 543 yards after the catch, according to Pro Football Focus. His 6.4 yards-after-the-catch average ranked 12th among wide receivers.
"He's just a big, stronger guy. He can break tackles, get the YAC yardage," said Pollard, growing increasingly intense as he talked. "We have to be sound in what we're doing with everybody on their team, but with him, on the outside, our cornerbacks have to be smart and get their hands on him. If you get any quick passes, they're going to have to tackle him. If they don't, we as a defense, we have to rally."
Added Williams: "He's a great route runner. I think he has great hands, strong hands at the catch. He's able to pluck the ball out of the air and he has great body control. He's great at running after the catch, man. He's done an unbelievable job for that organization and we're going to try to slow him down as best as possible."
The Ravens normally don't match up on individual receivers, and they aren't likely to change that in the Super Bowl. Typically, Williams is at right corner and Graham is at left corner in two-wide sets, and when offenses try to spread the field with three or more wide receivers, Graham will move inside to the slot with Smith or Chykie Brown replacing him on the outside (those two split snaps against the Patriots).
That means the 49ers, who move Crabtree all over their formations, can dictate his matchups. So similar to what Suggs said before, it will take a collective effort -- not just one man -- to slow down Crabtree.
"The [Green Bay] Packers got in trouble because they double-teamed him in man concepts and Kaepernick ran," said Greg Cosell of NFL Films. "So you have to decide, how are you going to deal with Crabtree if you're the Ravens? He also lines up all over the formation, so he'll line up outside. He'll line up in the slot. They don't move people around. Whoever is on him is going to be on him. But he's a tough cover."