San Francisco 49ers

Crabtree’s return gives 49ers another target begging for the ball

Colin Kaepernick not only has two high-profile wide receivers urging him to throw the ball to them on Sundays, he’s hearing the same exhortations during the week.

“I mean, there are times in practice where they’re, ‘Hey, throw me the ball. I’m going to do this,’ ” Kaepernick said Wednesday about Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree. “That’s something you love to see as an offensive player. They’re players that challenge each other in a good way in that, ‘I want to see if I can make a better play than you.’ ”

The 49ers quarterback is more than happy to have two receivers begging for the ball. He said their competitive spirit rubs off on the team’s other pass catchers. And Crabtree’s return to the lineup has forced defenses to play the 49ers differently than when Boldin and Vernon Davis were the team’s main receiving threats.

The 49ers are 3-0 since Crabtree’s return, and Kaepernick – who early in the season was thought by some to have regressed – has surpassed a 100 passer rating in three of his past four games.

“It’s changed the way defenses play us a lot,” Kaepernick said. “We get a lot more honest looks from defenses because we have a balance across the field, as far as the capability to make plays. That’s opened up a lot of things for Anquan. It’s opened up a lot of things for Crab and Vernon. With those three on the field, it’s tough for defenses to match up with them in the passing game.”

Kaepernick’s rapport with Boldin was nearly instantaneous, starting as far back as May, which Kaepernick attributed to Boldin picking up the playbook quickly and to the veteran’s confidence. Kaepernick said he loves seeing self-assurance in his receivers.

“As a quarterback, those are all things that go into, ‘OK, this is someone I can really rely on. I can put the ball in the air and he’s going to be where he needs to be,’ ” he said. “As quarterback, that’s something you love. You have that freedom to put the ball in the air.”

He has the same trust in Crabtree, his favorite target in 2012 who appears to be reaching last year’s level after missing three-quarters of the season because of an Achilles’ tear. Crabtree on Sunday had his best game since returning, catching five of the six passes that went his way for 45 yards, including a 4-yard touchdown.

Coach Jim Harbaugh joked last week that he knew Crabtree was back to full strength when he heard him barking on the sideline about getting more passes thrown his way. Kaepernick said Boldin, who is seven years Crabtree’s senior and who, having played opposite Larry Fitzgerald in Arizona, is accustomed to sharing passes, is a bit more subtle.

“But he’s someone who’ll come to the sideline after a series and be like, ‘He can’t cover me,’ ” Kaepernick said. “So at that point, from then on during the game, I know if I need an outlet, he’s probably going to be open.”

Crabtree’s fire and competitiveness manifested itself in other, undesirable ways Sunday. In the third quarter, Kaepernick didn’t see Crabtree open, streaking downfield, and threw an underneath route to Boldin instead. Later in the game, Crabtree again was loose downfield, but Kaepernick overthrew him.

Frustrated, Crabtree picked up the ball and flung it toward the line of scrimmage, picking up a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Kaepernick said penalties should be avoided but he’ll tolerate them if it means he has a receiver who wants his hands on the ball as badly as Crabtree.

“I don’t see it necessarily as a bad thing,” Kaepernick said. “Obviously, you don’t want the flag; that was something that didn’t benefit us. But having a receiver that constantly wants the ball is something I like. I’ll manage the situation of him (saying), ‘Hey, give me the ball. I want the ball. I’m trying to make a play. You could have hit me on this.’ I’ll manage that.

“I feel it’s tougher when you have a receiver that’s, ‘Um, if you throw it my way, I guess I’ll try to make a play.’ That’s a worse situation. The fact he wants the ball and constantly is asking for it, that’s a good thing for me.”