Go ahead and take his face off of the milk cartons — Vernon Davis has been found. After registering only seven catches for 105 yards and no touchdowns over his previous seven games, the 49ers’ star tight end broke out with five catches for 106 yards and a score against in the NFC Championship victory over the Falcons. Atlanta let tight end Zach Miller get loose to the tune of eight catches for 142 yards and a touchdown in their divisional round victory over the Seahawks, so it’s not entirely surprising to see Davis have success against their defense.
This success was predicated on variety, as the 49ers have big play threats in every phase of their offense. San Francisco established their running game on the third possession of the game, handing the ball off to Gore for gains of nine, one, three and seven yards on four consecutive plays. With the defense on its heels, Colin Kaepernick started throwing. After spreading the ball around to the wideouts, he looked to his big tight end.
Here’s a look at Davis’s first catch, a 27-yard pick up in the aforementioned drive:
The Falcons are playing man coverage and blitzing their middle linebacker. Defensive end Kroy Biermann doesn’t chip Davis at the line of scrimmage, so the tight end has nothing but open space getting into his route. He cuts across the hashmarks towards the numbers, while the field opens up for him thanks to a slant route from Michael Crabtree and a curl from Randy Moss, whose defender is playing several yards off of him (as usual). Thomas DeCoud is several steps behind Davis because William Moore unintentionally runs a pick on his teammate.
DeCoud wants to step into Davis’ route but can’t because Moore is in the way. The field opens up in front of Davis, and it’s an easy second read for Colin Kaepernick.
Davis’ next completion was all about time in the pocket, respect for Kaepernick and mismatches.
This time the Falcons decide to rub the tight end at the line, first bumping him with Jonathan Babineaux and then pressing with Stephen Nicholas before the linebacker broke out to cover Davis man-to-man. Some of the best corners in the game can’t cover him, so this is a mismatch from the start. The Falcons’ hope they can slow Davis just enough to give their front four a chance to pressure the quarterback, while Akeem Dent hangs back to spy on Kaepernick in case he decides to run.
But why would he? With this much time to go through progressions, he was bound to find an open man. On this play, no one was more open than Davis.
This play broke down for Atlanta because they couldn’t beat the 49ers’ offensive line. Had the Falcons’ rushers gotten pressure on Kaepernick, he may not have been able to hit Davis. If Kaepernick ran, Dent would have been waiting to stop him. Credit goes to the offensive line for making this play work.
Finally, we’ll look at Davis’ third quarter touchdown:
The 49ers got inside the Falcons’ five-yard line thanks to a deep pass to Davis, and his score was aided by San Francisco’s well-established run game. Kaepernick play fakes to Gore, leading half of Atlanta’s defense to bite. Davis initially comes off the line to engage in a block before rolling around Walker (lined up to his right) and releasing into a receiving pattern. Moore bites on the play action and ends up a couple steps behind Davis, while John Abraham stays with Kaepernick, who’s rolling out. It leaves Davis wide open for an easy touchdown.
Last season, Davis was the 49ers’ only real deep threat. This year, Davis’ stat line may be taking a hit from all of San Francisco offensive weapons. During the NFC Championship, there were too many for Atlanta to handle. However, while Gore, LaMichael James, Crabtree, Kaepernick and even Walker demand attention, the Falcons would probably advise the Ravens make sure Davis doesn’t slip through the cracks.