How much better is the 49ers’ offense when Michael Crabtree is on the field?
We’ll find out in six more days.
Crabtree made his long-awaited return to the 49ers (8-4) on Sunday and the passing attack sparkled, as quarterback Colin Kaepernick amassed 275 yards through the air in a routine 23-13 win over the St. Louis Rams.
Kaepernick hooked up with Crabtree twice for 68 yards, including an explosive 60-yard sideline bomb in the third quarter that triggered memories of last season’s incredible run to the Super Bowl when the duo was nearly unstoppable.
Kaepernick targeted Crabtree only four times in the contest, but the fifth-year receiver’s presence appeared to open up space in the passing game for veteran Anquan Boldin, who caught nine balls for 98 yards, and tight end Vernon Davis, who collected 82 yards on four receptions and a touchdown.
But the full impact of Crabtree’s return is hard to measure because Kaepernick and the 49ers were slapping around the bottom feeders of the league without him.
Last week, Kaepernick looked like Steve Young, throwing for 235 yards and three touchdowns against a woeful Washington Redskins defense. In October, he ran for 68 yards while producing a 93.2 passer rating against a mediocre Tennessee Titans squad and he racked up an eye-popping 412 passing yards against a porous Green Bay Packers defense in the season opener.
Kaepernick runs into trouble when he faces opponents with winning records, though. In four losses, Kaepernick has thrown for an average of 123.8 yards while completing just 50 percent of his passes (54-of-108).
Depending on who you ask, the flaws in the 49ers’ passing attack are either a reflection of Kaepernick’s lack of viable targets or his inability to read through progressions.
If the former is true, it will be evident when the 49ers line against the vaunted Seattle Seahawks defense at Candlestick Park on Sunday.
When the NFC West rivals hooked up in Week 2, the Seahawks shut down the 49ers offense by playing tight man coverage in the secondary. Without Crabtree, Pro Bowl cornerback Richard Sherman suffocated Boldin and Seahawks slowed down the ground game by sneaking safety Kam Chancellor into the box.
But the 49ers offense should be more dynamic in the rematch. Crabtree is a deep threat, who can stretch the field, drawing Sherman’s attention away from Boldin. This should free up one of the game’s best possession receivers to do his thing within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. The presence of two legitimate receivers will also keep the Seahawks defense honest, creating opportunities for Frank Gore on the ground while opening up holes for Davis, who’s as dangerous as any target in the NFL when neglected.
Crabtree’s impact will be mitigated, though, if Kaepernick is truly struggling with his progressions.
The Seahawks defense is smart, ferocious and capable of creating confusion at the line scrimmage. If Kaepernick doesn’t make his reads and get rid of the ball in around three seconds, the aerial attack will be stifled like it was against the Carolina Panthers on Nov. 10.
Crabtree is certainly a big piece of the puzzle, but can his return propel the 49ers back to the Super Bowl? The picture will be a little more clear on Sunday.
Paul Gackle is a contributor to The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at pgackle@ sfexaminer.com and followed on Twitter @GackleReport.