Put simply, the San Francisco 49ers' receiver situation was supposed to be a disaster in 2013. Main man Michael Crabtree suffered a torn Achilles tendon in May, San Francsico traded 2012 first-round pick A.J. Jenkins to the Kansas City Chiefs for Jon Baldwin in a swap of disappointing receivers and tight end Vernon Davis was running enough receiver routes in training camp to make people wonder just how Jim Harbaugh was going to make up the difference. The move that went well under the radar was the 49ers' March trade for Baltimore Ravens receiver Anquan Boldin. Boldin was trying to outrun the pay cut the Ravens wanted to implement, and the 49ers were willing to pay his $6 million base salary and give up a sixth-round pick in the bargain. Thus, the man who bedeviled San Francisco's defense about a month before in Super Bowl XLVII was on his way to the Bay Area.
Safe to say, things have worked out nicely after one game. Boldin caught 13 passes for 208 yards and a touchdown against the Green Bay Packers in his regular-season debut with the 49ers, a 34-28 win for his new team. And after watching the tape of that game, it's clear to me that Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman knew exactly how to best use Boldin in their offense -- with inventive route concepts, and Boldin's own field savvy. Of course, they had an up-close look at that when he caught six passes for 104 yards and a touchdown in that Super Bowl.
“Well, he cost us a draft choice, and we’re paying him a lot of money," Harbaugh said with a wry smile after the Packers game, "But he’s worth every penny.”
Indeed. Before we get into how Boldin laid waste to Green Bay's defense, let's revisit a couple of plays from the Super Bowl. We'll start with his 13-yard touchdown pass from Joe Flacco with 10:36 left in the first quarter.
At the snap, Boldin (inside receiver in trips right) kept linebacker NaVorro Bowman (first red square) inside by driving to him, and then straightening out his route. Safety Donte Whitner had to read Dennis Pitta from the middle of trips, but Pitta ran straight to the end zone, and Whitner had to recover and close. Joe Flacco made an amazing throw over the heads of Bowman and Whitner, and Boldin had the first score of the game. People who use the term "possession receiver" as a pejorative may not understand just how important spatial awareness is to receivers in these situations, but we'll hear more about this term later, what it means, and how Boldin maximizes this attribute.
The Super Bowl actually showed a few concepts that we also saw from Boldin with the 49ers, and we'll see more of them as the season goes along. It's a perfect match, because Kaepernick has the arm to make these plays, and the mobility to excel outside of structure. In Boldin, he has a receiver who thrives in chaos. We saw this when Flacco completed a 30-yard pass to Boldin with 1:31 left in the first quarter of the Super Bowl. The Ravens had 3rd-and-7 at their own 36, Flacco had to roll right out of a blitz and Boldin -- who got additional separation from the formation -- made sure that he was open deep downfield.
Boldin was the inside receiver in Baltimore's bunch right formation (he's circled in purple), and he ran a long route outside the seam after taking a quick one-step in-cut a few yards downfield. At the same time, tight end Dennis Pitta ran a deep route under Boldin's, which took Whitner (31) out of coverage on Boldin. And Tandon Doss ran a drag through the middle of the formation, which took cornerback Carlos Rogers (22) away. The most important thing about Boldin's route, though, was the point at which he saw his quarterback reacting after the play broke down, which is designated by a change in color from purple to red in his route.
Boldin's awareness of the extended play, and his ability to follow his scrambling quarterback? These are the kinds of things that go unnoticed by some, but make certain receivers crucial parts of passing games. It's an underrated skill, and one that quarterbacks -- especially mobile quarterbacks -- greatly appreciate. Last September, Tony Romo told me that you can't play receiver for the Cowboys unless you have an awareness of re-routing when plays break down.
"That's part of playing receiver here," he said. "You've got to understand that our offensive line gives us the chance to move around and do some things. When that happens, the guys who have a good knack and understanding where to move at those times, obviously get themselves open and give me a good look."
Boldin showed Kaepernick the value of that attribute a couple of times against the Packers. There was a long incomplete pass to Boldin down the right sideline with 6:55 left in the first half, where Kaepernick evaded pressure from Clay Matthews and rolled to his right. As he did so, Boldin made sure to keep his eyes on Kaepernick, breaking off from the original route to give his quarterback an opening. Kaepernick threw the ball just out of bounds, but the point was made. And with 3:00 left in the game, the 49ers had 4th-and-2 from the Packers' 36-yard line. Boldin ran a little out route to the flat in a crossing pattern, but when Kaepernick rolled to his right to extend the play, Boldin bumped off of Green Bay cornerback Tramon Williams to insure that he could remain open as the play shifted out of structure.
"Whenever you have a quarterback like Kaepernick -- if a play does break down, you have to stay alive," Boldin said after the game. "He's great at getting outside the pocket and throwing accurately, even if it's across his body."
Never a "track-fast" player, Boldin has a special ability to create separation and look faster than he actually is -- he knows where the openings are, and he will find them over and over. Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, who will array his defense against Boldin and the 49ers on Sunday night, spoke to this when I asked him on Wednesday why some receivers manage to transcend their 40 times.
"Some guys have extraordinary spatial awareness," he said. "They know where the spaces in the game are, and they can fit into them. Some players add the basketball kind of awareness, where you feel bodies on you and you know how to position yourself and make space for the ball to get in there. He has all of that. He gets off the ground really well, he's very strong, and you can't knock him off course. You can be right with him, and as you go to make a play on the ball ... with some smaller receivers, you can jostle them some and impair their line of vision. With this guy, you can't knock him off. It's like [Antonio] Gates in San Diego -- he has an extraordinary sense of how to move and keep guys off him. Boldin has it as a receiver, and you don't see it that often, because receivers have to be big enough to utilize that, and he has it.
"Speed has nothing to do with it. He's an incredible football player."
We saw this against the Packers when the 49ers set Boldin up as the "X-iso" receiver on the left side of the formation. That's generally a designation for faster receivers who gain separation with pure speed, but Boldin didn't need it, and this is another thing that makes him special in any offense.
This was a three-tight end set, which the 49ers use more than most teams. Tight ends Bruce Miller and Vernon Davis started off in the backfield, with Vance McDonald aligned on the right side of the formation. Davis first motioned outside McDonald at the line; then Miller motioned to a very wide right look, which stretched Green Bay's coverage. The 49ers are great at using tight ends in unconventional ways. Stretching the tight ends away from Boldin left the X-iso with a matchup against cornerback Tramon Williams (circled) and safety Jerron McMillian playing up top. Boldin won the play and caught a 22-yard pass because he understood where the open area would be, and he worked it to perfection by getting past Williams and rolling to where McMillian wasn't.
Kaepernick's 22-yard pass to Boldin with 13:26 left in the third quarter of the Packers game was another case of Boldin beating coverage with formation diversity on a deep route. This looks a bit like Boldin's deep-right catch in the Super Bowl, without the random element. It was motion to bunch, with Vernon Davis motioning to and back out of the combo, receiver Kyle Williams at the top of the stack and Boldin outside. The interesting thing about this play was that while Davis and Williams each took away one defender with their routes, Boldin hit the zone covered by the cornerback and the safety -- and he made the catch anyway. This was an outstanding example of Boldin's most obvious and valuable skill -- the ability to be a productive and consistent receiver even when he's covered by two or more defenders. Nobody in the NFL is better at making contested catches. Adding Matthews (in the box) spying Kaepernick, and you have a combo that is just about impossible to defend.
“He has taken the place of Michael Crabtree as the big, go-to numbers guy," Carroll told me. "That’s what you would think after one game. Crabtree was a big deal on their offense and all of those same kind of routes are the ones that Anquan was running. They are entirely different athletes in their style of play. There’s nobody like Boldin. He’s a fantastic football player. So as they are growing with him, they are finding out that there’s all kinds of ways that they can use him. He’s been a little bit in the backfield, he’s been a little bit everywhere. They are going to continue to work with him and continue to expand because there is nothing that he can’t do. He’s a very well-equipped football player. But I think in general, the balls that Crabtree was getting last year, he’s getting right now.”
Unexpectedly, Boldin has proven able to take all of those concepts to heart, even though he can't match Crabtree's pure physical prowess.
"You've just got to play sound ball," Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor told me about dealing with Boldin. "We're going to mix up our coverages and throw different coverages in there. Different pressures; everybody being disciplined on the backend. You can go back and study film on him, see his tendencies and routes -- the things he likes to do at the top of his routes.
"But the thing about Anquan is, if he's covered by two or three people, they'll still throw the ball to him. He's a competitor -- he'll go up and try to make that grab."
Seahawks cornerback Walter Thurmond told me that the Seahawks won't make the mistake the Packers did in scrapping many of their man-coverage concepts in deference to Kaepernick's ability to run. This will be a straight-up battle with Richard Sherman, the Seahawks' best pass defender, hitting Boldin one-on-one at the line as often as possible. There are those in the NFL who would have you believe that Boldin hasn't earned that kind of opponent respect ... but as always, the tape don't lie.