Halfway through the 2013 season, the 49ers are in position to strike deep in the playoffs, a game and a half back of Seattle in the NFC West. After a shaky start to the year, San Francisco has rattled off five consecutive wins and, with the Seahawks having to sweat out close games against the Rams and winless Buccaneers, the 49ers have to consider themselves in prime position to make a second-half run.
If they’re going to get back to the Super Bowl, however, they’re going to need to get their passing game back to the level it was performing at last season.
With both Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham missing the first half of the season recovering from injuries, the San Francisco passing game has been near nonexistent. They’re averaging only 190 yards a game in the air, dead last in the NFL. A great deal of that can be attributed to the team focusing on the healthy and efficient run game, as they’ve only passed the ball 44.2 percent of the time—a figure that seems impossible in the modern-day pass-first NFL. That’s not sustainable if they find themselves down late in a game—the passing game is simply going to have to perform better.
Reinforcements are on the way—Manningham is expected to play Sunday against Carolina, while Crabtree is practicing with the team and should be back within the next month. This will be an instant upgrade over the likes of Kyle Williams and Marlon Moore, as 49ers receivers not named Anquan Boldin have combined for just 16 receptions and 142 yards this year.
It’s important to remember, however, that just because Crabtree and Manningham are playing doesn’t mean that they’ve fully recovered. It can take up to a full year for players recovering from torn ligaments and tendons to fully regain their explosiveness and ability to turn and cut. They’ll be improvements, but they won’t save the passing game by themselves.
The player, then, who can have the biggest impact on the 49ers' quest for a deep playoff run is tight end Vernon Davis. Davis is already on pace to break his single-season highs with 518 yards on 29 receptions—and this includes missing the entire Indianapolis game with a hamstring injury.
More interesting than the raw numbers, however, is where these receptions are happening. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required)—30 percent of the passes headed his way are thrown 20 or more yards down the field, a significant increase over years past. That goes a long way to explaining why his yards per reception has skyrocketed to 17.9, enough to put him tops in the league among tight ends with at least five targets, as well as the high watermark for his career.
Moreover, he’s been incredibly efficient with his deep routes. Davis averages 2.99 yards per route run; only Rob Gronkowski has a higher figure among receivers this season. No one else in football produces more yards when they go out to catch a pass.
If Crabtree and Manningham are going to be limited in their explosiveness, someone has to provide the deep plays in the pass game, and that responsibility falls on Davis. His rare blend of size and athleticism allow the 49ers to use him creatively all over the formation, be it in on the line as a traditional tight end, stuck in the slot to abuse a nickelback or safety, or even split out wide.
San Francisco has had to be creative to try to get Davis open by moving him around the formation, but the return of Manningham and Crabtree means that defenses won’t be able to key in on Davis as much as they have to this point in the season. He'll have better matchups to exploit and more room to work in. For the 49ers to make a deep run in the playoffs, they’re going to need Davis to continue to overwhelm defenders and haul in all the catchable balls he can be thrown.
Overall pass-game production should improve for the 49ers as they get reinforcements back from the injured list; it could hardly go in any other direction. However, if they want to pass the Seahawks and the Saints and bring playoff games back to Candlestick Park one last time, they’re going to need Davis to continue to perform better than his previous career highs, carrying the deep passing game on his back.