SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- In the 49ers' run-based offense, opportunities in the passing game are limited, particularly when split among a handful of capable receivers. Michael Crabtree knows this, but at the same time he doesn't accept it.
"I don't think I'll ever be comfortable with it," he says. "I'm just going to stay hungry and stay humble, but at the same time I've got to be a little selfish. I don't like to use that word, but that's how a receiver has to think. They want the ball and have to have the ball. You've got to think you're the best on the field. I'm taking that approach to the game this year. As a football player you've got to show what you've got, that way they'll keep coming to you with the ball. I've got to take one play at a time and try to make the most out of it. If they see I'm hot, they've got to keep coming back to me."
Two days after discussing his approach, Crabtree went out and forced offensive coordinator Greg Roman to keep calling his number. With San Francisco trying to hold on after Detroit made it a one-score game midway through the fourth quarter last Sunday night, he had a seven-yard reception on 3rd-and-7 from the 49ers' 24. Then he picked up 16 yards on 3rd-and-14. Then 11 yards on 3rd-and-9.
Suddenly a game that had gotten interesting was back to being ho-hum, as Alex Smith completed the 79-yard drive with a 23-yard touchdown pass to tight end Vernon Davis, giving San Francisco a 27-12 lead with 3:04 to play. Much of the focus afterward was on Smith's two scoring tosses to Davis and the defense's neutralization of returning 5,000-yard passer Matthew Stafford, who finished with only 230 yards and one score in the 27-19 defeat, but Crabtree's clutch receptions were equally important. Overall, five of his six catches for 67 yards went for first downs, not that he's satisfied.
First downs are not enough for someone who had 41 scores in only two seasons at Texas Tech. Crabtree wants touchdowns, which have been elusive since he was drafted 10th overall in 2009. In 44 career games he has just 12 touchdowns, and it bothers him.
"That's got to change," he says. "Me, I'm going to be who I am. You've got to be greedy as a receiver, you know what I'm saying? You've got to want to score a lot of touchdowns. You've got to want the ball. You've got to want to make a play every time you get the ball. That's my mentality. Every time I get the ball, I don't care if I've got this much room ..."
He holds the thumb and index finger on his right hand inches apart.
"I've got to make a play, because you never know when you'll see it again," he continues. "It's not like receivers in other offenses. They'll give them the damn ball 20 times a game, so those guys know they can drop a couple of passes and they're still going to get the ball. But it doesn't work like that over here with us having so much talent. You feel like you've got to do what you can do when you get the ball. When you're first coming in, you don't really understand that. You just want the ball and you wonder, 'Why ain't I getting the ball?' But you learn that you've got to earn it."
Crabtree has done that this season. Coaches and teammates say he has raised his game from last season, when he set career highs with 874 yards on 72 receptions while adding four touchdowns, two off his personal best. Part of it has to do with him going through a full training camp for the first time in his career -- injuries prevented him from participating in a preseason game before this year -- and part of it has to do with him being more comfortable with the offense.
"When you know what you're doing, it allows you to be more consistent," says Smith. "That's not just with Crab. It's with all of us. But in his case, it's just knowing the down code, knowing all the adjustments, knowing how you fit in the offense on a given play. You get out there on game day and you can play fast. You can be the one dictating things to the defense. I've seen that from him. He has such a good understanding of what we're doing. He can play all the positions. You can move him around. He can literally do it all."
"You definitely see growth in him," says Davis. "Just like with any young guy that comes in, he had to go through some trials and tribulations and things like that. But he learned from that. He's in Year 4 now and he knows that he has to help this team win. That's his No. 1 priority."
Crabtree had a few rough moments his first couple of years with the team. Beside the injuries, there were issues with route-running and technique, things that take on heightened importance with receivers like Crabtree, who lack elite speed. This year, however, the 6-foot-1, 214-pounder has been more consistent in his approach and performance, and is on pace for a 104-catch, 1,144-yard season.
It would be easy for Crabtree to wonder what kind of pinball numbers he could put up in an offense that was pass-centric, instead of a 49ers attack that attempted the second-fewest passes in the league last season and ranks 26th this year. But he won't go there. In his mind it's not about the offense, it's about the player making the most of his opportunities.
"A lot of people say a lot of things about coaches when they're not getting the ball," he says, "but ... to me it's more about the player on Sundays."
One reason the 49ers' run game is so good is because Crabtree is a fearless blocker. He'll go after cornerbacks with the same zeal he will a football in the open field. "If you turn on the film and look at the type of stuff that he does on film, you'll see that he's a complete player," says Gore. "He blocks his ass off. A lot of receivers don't want to do the dirty work. But he'll clean guys out."
His development has made him a bigger part of the passing game. Despite the free-agent signings of Randy Moss and Mario Manningham, as well as the selection of A.J. Jenkins in the first round of the draft, Crabtree is Smith's favorite perimeter option. His 16 targets are double that of the next guy, Manningham, and his 143 yards are 86 more than Manningham has. But what jumps out at Crabtree is that Moss has the wideouts' only touchdown.
"I want to score touchdowns. That's what I'm here for," he says with a smile and shake of the head. "I need to get into that end zone. It's kind of hard when you first come in and they're already double-teaming you and you can't get your touchdowns. Those other guys, they're able to get all those touchdowns in or are sneaking them. But I'm just taking one practice at a time and focusing on me. That's where you have to start. I know a lot of people say 'team,' but you can't do the team without you doing your part. That's what I try to preach."
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