Why Vernon Davis Is Key to a 49ers Victory in NFC Championship Game

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Why Vernon Davis Is Key to a 49ers Victory in NFC Championship Game
JOHN FROSCHAUER/Associated Press

Power running, Colin Kaepernick-to-Michael Crabtree connections and soul-crushing defense—that's what the San Francisco 49ers do.  

But Vernon Davis, their prolific tight end, will be integral to getting a victory over the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game and advancing to their second straight Super Bowl. 

Davis is a 6'3'', muscle-bound tight end who, at 29, is still one of the most athletically imposing players at his position. Remember, he ran a 4.38 at the 2006 NFL Combine, so even though Father Time has likely worked his cruel sorcery on Davis' youthful speed, he's maybe slowed into the 4.5 range.

If Davis has made only six receptions in his previous four games against the Seahawks, why will he be vital on Sunday?  

Well, Crabtree may draw the NFL's premier lockdown cornerback, Richard Sherman, a master of physical coverage who fluidly follows his receiver and intercepts the football.  

He has picked off a league-high 16 passes since the start of the 2012 season.  

Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

This year, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), among cornerbacks who played at least 60 percent of their respective team's snaps, Sherman was thrown at an NFL-low 58 times, yet he finished with eight interceptions, the most in football. 

Pretty incredible, right?  

Sherman hasn't been the Darrelle Revis type of cornerback who simply follows the opposition's top receiver regardless of where he lines up pre-snap; therefore, Byron Maxwell may very well cover Crabtree for a good portion of the game.  

No, Maxwell isn't of Sherman's caliber, but per PFF, among cornerbacks who took at least 25 percent of their respective team's snaps this year, his 47.8 QB rating allowed was second in the NFL to Sherman's 47.3. 

Yikes.  

It's not so much that Crabtree will definitely be shut out of the game, it's more about the idea that throwing the football away from Sherman or Maxwell has proven to be a good practice this year. 

But that won't be easy for Kaepernick.  

Crabtree's now played in seven games this season. Here's a look at his stat line: 

Michael Crabtree's 2013 Season (Included Playoffs)
Receptions Targets Yards % of Total Receptions % of Total Targets % of Total Passing Yards
vs. Rams 2 4 68 10.5 14.2 24.7
vs. Seahawks 4 8 40 26.7 27.5 22.8
at Buccaneers 5 6 45 26.3 20.6 22.1
vs. Falcons 5 7 102 38.4 33.3 51.7
at Cardinals 3 8 29 14.2 23.5 9.3
at Packers (playoffs) 8 13 125 50.0 43.3 55.0
at Panthers (playoffs) 3 7 26 20.0 28.0 13.2
Totals 30 53 435
Averages 4.28 7.57 62.14 30.3 26.6 27.4

ESPN

Anquan Boldin's figures in those same categories have actually been higher than Crabtree's since his return on December 1 against the St. Louis Rams, but with 30 percent of Kaepernick's completions and nearly 30 percent of his targets and yards, Crabtree's clearly been an integral aspect of the passing offense.

Safe to say, either he or Boldin—if not both—will almost assuredly have a relatively quiet outing in Seattle against the Seahawks' stingy outside corners. 

Remember, during the regular season the Seahawks allowed under 200 yards passing on 11 occasions, and Drew Brees was under 300 before the final, desperate drive with under a minute to go. 

While Crabtree's a refined wideout who knows how to create separation, and Boldin, though not particularly fast, uses his physical nature to shield defenders on tightly contested passes his way, neither boast the tremendous athleticism and size of Davis, someone with a physical skill set that matches up well with the big, fast and super aggressive style of Seattle's secondary.  

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Davis will be a more attractive pass-catching option by default—he'll be away from Sherman and Maxwell down the seam. 

During the regular season, the Seahawks allowed 799 receiving yards to tight ends, or 29.0 percent of the total amount they surrendered.

Furthermore, six of the 16 touchdown passes given up by Seattle came via a reception by a tight end—37.5 percent.

Those aren't incredibly high percentages, but with Boldin and Crabtree the centerpieces of San Francisco's passing attack, there's a chance the Seahawks won't be able to completely zero in on Davis like they did to New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham in the divisional round. 

Sure, Davis was held to 3 catches for 20 yards and two catches for 21 yards in the two games against the Seahawks this year, but he did reel in a touchdown in the second meeting in San Francisco.

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If there's a pass-catcher on San Francisco's active roster strong enough and fast enough to actually be a mismatch against Seattle's secondary, it's Davis, a guy who, rather quietly, led all tight ends with a 16.3 yards-per-catch average and finished third in the league with 13 touchdown grabs this season. 

Also, 25 percent of his catches were touchdowns in 2013, the highest percentage among tight ends with more than 20 receptions. Davis accounted for 33.3 percent of San Francisco's 39 offensive touchdowns, as well.

Because of who won't cover him, his physical prowess and scoring specialty—Vernon Davis' performance will be key for the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. 

 

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