San Francisco 49ers

Red-zone passing attack continues to be an area of concern for 49ers

Michael Crabtree can’t come up with a catch while the Ravens’ Corey Graham defends during the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLVII. The 49ers continue to struggle in the red zone this season.
Michael Crabtree can’t come up with a catch while the Ravens’ Corey Graham defends during the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLVII. The 49ers continue to struggle in the red zone this season.

– “They’re scared of me, bro,” 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree told quarterback Colin Kaepernick. “That’s my territory. When we get in that red zone? They can’t control me, bro. It’s too fast. I’m too big.”

The animated sideline exchange, picked up by cameras, happened in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl after the 49ers had scored a touchdown but had failed on a two-point conversion to tie the score. Kaepernick’s pass attempt, to Randy Moss, had gone over the receiver’s head.

Crabtree’s message: When the 49ers are close to the goal line, throw it in his direction.

“I got you,” Kaepernick said.

Said Crabtree: “You know what I’m saying? Throw that thing up. I’m going to make an effort.”

Kaepernick: “I owe you one. I owe you one.”

The discussion became darkly prophetic at the end of the game when, back in the red zone, Kaepernick threw to Crabtree on three straight plays in the shadow of Baltimore’s goal line. The Ravens seemed to know what was coming, and the result was three straight incompletions and the 49ers’ firstSuper Bowl defeat.

The sequence underscored two issues with the 49ers’ offense last season. As potent as the Kaepernick-Crabtree combination was in 2012, the quarterback tended to lock in on him at critical moments and didn’t have nearly as strong a connection with his other pass catchers.

It also highlighted the team’s red-zone struggles, especially when trying to score through the air.

Nine months after their Super Bowl loss, the 49ers return to New Orleans today with the same problems.

Anquan Boldin has replaced the injured Crabtree as Kaepernick’s go-to receiver. Boldin has been targeted a team-high 67 timesand, like Crabtree last season, he is on pace to surpass 1,000 receiving yards. Tight end Vernon Davis, who has missed parts of three games, has been targeted 49 times.

After that, there’s a steep drop-off.

Kyle Williams, who was released Tuesday, had been targeted 27 times, fullback Bruce Miller 20 times and running back Frank Gore 17 times.

The 49ers expect Mario Manningham, who returned from a severe knee injury last week, to pick up some of that slack.

Last Sunday, in his first game in 11 months, Kaepernick targeted him a team-high six times, and despite two drops, Manningham led the 49ers with 30 receiving yards. Lightly used Jon Baldwin – he’s been targeted six times and has three catches this year – also could see more work today.

“I thought he had a tremendous week this week of practice and (was) very competitive,” Jim Harbaugh said of Baldwin. “You love a guy that’s going to give you everything he’s got, and that’s what we’ve seen.”

Overall, the 49ers have been a better red-zone team than a year ago. They have scored touchdowns more than 60 percent of the time they’ve gone inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, ninth-best percentage in the league.

The vast majority of those touchdowns, however, have come on the ground. They’ve scored 12 rushing touchdowns from inside the 20-yard line and just four through the air.

And two of those four touchdown passes came in the Week 1 win against the Packers, and only two 49ers – Boldin and Davis – have caught touchdown passes this season. After nine weeks, the 49ers rank ahead of only the one-win Jaguars in red-zone passing efficiency.

One issue is a lack of weapons.

Perhaps the 49ers’ two most memorable red-zone touchdown catches in the Harbaugh era have been made by tight ends.

Delanie Walker had one from 6 yards away with 1:51 left for a win over the Lions in 2011. A 14-yard pass from Alex Smith to Davis with nine seconds remaining beat the Saints in the divisional playoffs that same year and is the 49ers’ most iconic play in the last 15 years.

Davis has two red-zone touchdowns this year. But the team’s No. 2 tight end, rookie Vance McDonald, hasn’t become a regular option in the passing game and has only six catches

At 6-foot-5, 270 pounds and with long arms, McDonald would appear to be an excellent target in the tight spaces of the red zone. And Davis said the rookie is making the necessary strides.

“I think he’s making a lot of progress,” Davis said. “Vance is to me such a tremendous talent. The sky’s the limit for him.”

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