Today we focus on Michael Crabtree’s footwork. It seems only right — Crabtree has spent a good deal of time focusing on it himself. He said as much when BASG talked to him at Ubisoft’s Hip Hop Dance Experience event last week:

Harbaugh said you have the best hands he’s ever seen. But how important is footwork — you’re talking about dancing — when it comes to being a wide receiver?

It’s very important. That’s what you do, you run routes. You run to get open, you juke to get open. So footwork plays a big part. I haven’t seen too many guys that play wide receiver that can’t dance. You gotta have some feet, man.

He certainly does. Through 14 games, Crabtree is ranked 10th in the league for yards after catch with 394. He’s averaging 6.2 YAC per reception which accounts for 45% of his total yards this season. Compare that to last year, when he was 30th in the league with 363 through 15 games. Furthermore, he has surpassed his career high in receptions, first downs and touchdowns while being well on pace to set new career highs in yards and targets.

Crabtree had his best game of the season on Sunday night, hauling in seven of his 12 targets for 107 yards and two touchdowns. Jim Harbaugh praised him this offseason for having the best hands he has ever seen (which may be a little bit of that “Alex Smith is elite” kind of hyperbole), but it’s Crabtree’s footwork and route running that deserve some credit.

Screen pass for a first down

Crabtree came out of the gates fast with two catches for first downs to start the game. This was the second, a screen pass that went for 13 yards.

crabtree screen pass layout

Here is a really complicated layout for a very simple bubble screen. Vernon Davis lines up behind Delanie Walker and blocks down on the wide side corner when the ball is snapped. Walker chips the nickel corner and heads off to block the safety downfield. The rest is up to Crabtree, who shows beautiful footwork getting separation from the nickel corner to make the catch…

…and even better balance weaving around defenders to move the chains.

If not for a great effort by linebacker Mike Rivera to catch him from behind, this might have been a touchdown.

27-yard touchdown catch

The 49ers struck quickly following Aldon Smith’s third quarter interception of a pass intended for Aaron Hernandez. This was definitely one of the highlights of the game, with most of the praise focused on Kaepernick’s ability to fire this pass 60 mph through the elements. Almost equally impressive was Crabtree’s route.

crabtree td screen grab

The Patriots are playing a two-deep zone, so all Crabtree has to do to get open between zones is confuse the linebacker. He runs a stutter step that makes Brandon Spikes think Crabtree is going to cut toward the hashes, which you can find utterly misrepresented in my animation. Here’s a better look:

Crabtree’s step and head fake: textbook. Everything about the play is beautiful really, from the juke to the pass and catch. And afterward there’s Aaron Hernandez, and the poor guy next to him who looks so incredibly forlorn.

Aaron Hernandez sad face

38-yard touchdown

Although it was Kaepernick who noticed that Crabtree was one-on-one with the cornerback on this play, the touchdown was all Crabtree.

crabtree final touchdown screen grab

The corner shows some respect by dropping back to the first down marker. Meanwhile, Crabtree runs an eight-yard button hook and turns a low pass from Kaepernick in a 38-yard game winning touchdown.

Crabtree sets his feet as the ball comes his way, squaring his body perfectly to catch the pass. He wheels around the corner — something we’ve seen him do dozens of times this season — then he’s off to the races.

These are all the things we expected out of Crabtree. Maybe it’s health (that’s what Crabtree thinks), maybe it’s chemistry with Kaepernick (he thinks that, too), or maybe Crabtree needed these last few years to perfect his craft. Whatever it may be, his footwork has certainly helped to make him the 49ers’ top receiving threat this year.