Patriots

Curran: 49ers' Davis, Crabtree give it their all in loss

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Curran: 49ers' Davis, Crabtree give it their all in loss

NEW ORLEANS When the Niners needed it on Sunday and man, did they need it they looked to get the ball to two players: Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree.

They almost helped lead the Niners out of the darkness and into the greatest comeback win in Super Bowl history.

On the Niners final offensive play of season it was Crabtree, attempting to fight through an apparent hold by Ravens corner Jimmy Smith, trying in vain to catch a Colin Kaepernick throw that fell just out of reach. And the Niners title hopes fell with it.

But it wasnt for lack of effort and it wasnt for lack of guts. The Ravens just got in the way.

"We knew we could come back," said Davis. "That's just the way to be, you have to believe and just attack it and that's what we did. And I think we did a terrific job as far as trying to stay under composure and keep under control and make plays."

The two players combined for 11 catches and 213 yards. Eighteen of Kaepernicks 28 attempts went to either the fourth-year wideout or the seventh-year tight end.

Crabtree kickstarted the post-outage comeback with a 31-yard touchdown catch that highlighted his receiving ability and post-catch toughness as he ran out of a Cary Williams tackle for the score. On the play preceding the touchdown, Davis went 18 yards with a Kaepernick throw to put the Niners at the Baltimore 31.

On the next Niners drive, it was Davis putting the hammer down on the Baltimore secondary, mashing down to the Baltimore 6 with a 14-yard reception.

If San Francisco was going to come back, it needed singularly brilliant efforts. And Davis and Crabtree had begun delivering them.

And they did until the very end.

"They probably changed their scheme up a little bit and some holes opened. We took advantage of them," said Davis. "I know one play, I had to run up the seam and Crab came out and turned up, we call it a stick route and he made the play. On other plays, I would get open, then Crab would get open. Then we found Randy Moss and Delanie Walker."

On the Niners final drive, when they were trying to finally erase the Ravens lead, Davis just missed hauling in a tough throw from Kaepernick down the right sideline.

On the next play, Crabtree went where the best receivers go over the middle to pull in a 24-yard reception and get the Niners into Ravens territory with 2:39 left.

A 33-yard burst by Frank Gore put the Niners in business at the Baltimore 7. But after a run by LaMichael James, the Niners called three seemingly low-percentage plays to Crabtree.

All three failed, and the final one, where Smith had Crabtree in a bear hug, will be discussed at length for a long time.

There was a time four seasons ago when Davis was singled out for as symbolic of what was wrong with the 49ers.

I want winners! ranted Mike Singletary and the implication was that Davis at that time was not.

Within a year of Singletarys rant, Crabtree was in the midst of a rookie holdout that helped derail his rookie season and make him a bit performer. Pain in the posterior was a possibility.

Sunday night in New Orleans, Davis and Crabtree along with the indescribable Kaepernick were the central figures for a 49ers offense that came so close to a win for the ages.

They lost Sunday night. But nobodys looking at Davis or Crabtree and wondering if theyre winners.

Giardi: After getting schooled, Butler's got to be better

Giardi: After getting schooled, Butler's got to be better

When the Patriots signed Stephon Gilmore in the offseason and then managed to keep Malcolm Butler around, the consensus was not only might this be the best 1-2 punch at cornerback the team has ever had, but maybe, just maybe, it was the best duo in the NFL this season. 

Newsflash: it hasn’t been. Not even close. 

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The latest example comes from Sunday night in Denver. Gilmore returned from a three-game absence (concussion) to play well against Demaryius Thomas in that 41-16 win. The same can’t be said of Butler. He spent much of his day playing man-to-man versus Emmanuel Sanders and struggled mightily.

Butler’s issues started on the very first play. He got lost along the sidelines and surrendered a 31-yard catch. Butler initially had Sanders blanketed. The two were lined up outside the numbers along the left sideline. Based on the formation, and the alignment of safety Devin McCourty, it was pretty clear Butler was alone on an island. Sanders initially drove inside before straightening out his route. Then he cut sharply, working speedily to the flat. Butler had a good beat on the play but unwisely peeked into the backfield. That’s when Sanders turned up and found nothing but green grass.

“I would just say I’d just tip my hat to him,” said Butler. “It was a great route. He steered me in. Then he went up then went out then went back up so I thought that was it. It was a little more than I expected. You gotta learn from it and play it better next time.”

On the same drive, he was beaten again by Sanders, this time for 13 yards. The Pats defense tightened up and held Denver to a field goal but a pattern had already been established between the Patriots' 27-year-old cornerback and Sanders.

The next big play Butler coughed up came with 4:13 to play in the second quarter. Broncos QB Brock Osweiler summoned Sanders to come across the formation via motion but then sent him back as the wideout approached the tackle box. Butler overreacted, trying to jump out ahead of the motion while simultaneously looking into the backfield. It was then he realized Sanders had done an about-face. To his credit, Butler recovered and jumped on Sanders shortly after the snap of the ball, actually shoving the receivers’ right shoulder in an attempt to disrupt the pattern. 

As Sanders turned upfield, he appeared well-covered by Butler. But then another old habit that’s been hard for Butler to break appeared. He lost track of the ball once it took flight. Sanders slapped on the brakes and high-pointed the football while Butler watched, helplessly flat-footed. Chalk up another 23-yard gain.

“I would just say he underthrew it and I got pushed by,” said Butler. “I probably burst because I was expected the ball to come too. You just got to play it the best way you can. Things happen. He just made a great play. I was in good position but not good enough.”

Sanders caught one more pass on the drive, and should have had a touchdown in the second quarter, streaking past Butler toward the end zone. But Osweiler made a terrible throw, unable to even keep it in the field of play. Hence another field goal instead of a touchdown. Bullet dodged - and there were a few.

“You can’t win with three all day,” said Butler of the defense’s red-zone efficiency. “They’re very hard on us on protecting the red area and not giving up touchdowns in the red area. Bend but don’t break. That’s been the motto.”

The Patriots would break later and Sanders beating Butler was a part of it. The play coming about five minutes into the third quarter on Denver's only TD-scoring drive. The Broncos came out in trips, employing a bunch formation that had plagued the Patriots so often the first month of the season. Unlike then, the Pats handled communication perfectly and as Sanders worked toward the seam, Butler had good position and help toward the post, with safety Duron Harmon eyeballing Sanders the entire way. So did Butler do? He gave up outside leverage, with Sanders breaking hard to the flag. Butler’s footwork was a mess - he got spun around like he was auditioning for "Dancing With the Stars" - and was unable to recover until Sanders had picked up another 23 yards.

“Another good route,” said Butler. “He got me thinking inside and broke out. He’s a good player. A great receiver.”

There’s no denying Sanders’ talent, but Butler has got to be better and more consistent. He’s too often been lost in coverage or gotten caught gambling, eyeballing a big play that’s rarely come in 2017. With their issues up front, it’s the Pats secondary that’s going to have to lead the way. The corners have only occasionally played to the level expected of them. The clock is ticking. Thanksgiving is right around the corner and if you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: this is when the Patriots want to be playing their best football. About time Butler answered the call.