At this point in his career, Vernon Davis makes a very strong case for himself being a top-three tight end in the NFL today. He has been the best offensive weapon for the San Francisco's passing game since his inception into the league. And now more than ever, his rapport with quarterback Alex Smith seems to be the best working relationship on the team.
Davis has made a number of spectacular plays for the 49ers, and as a receiver, there are a few patterns that really bring the best out of him. Because of his rare combination of size, speed and athleticism, he provides a flexible weapon for the Niners to use in their offensive system. One of Davis' more domineering routes is the wheel route -- something he's been known to hurt defenses with.
He also makes a living killing defenses in the middle with the post pattern; but for this piece, I'd like to breakdown Vernon Davis and the crossing route. The crossing route is a pretty general pattern in that it can be all sorts of different depths, and it's a pretty common underneath route that works best with explosive players.
In Week 10 of the 2011 regular season, the San Francisco 49ers hosted the New York Giants at Candlestick Park. It was a close, physical match for most of the game until the Niners finally broke one open for their first touchdown of the day.
2nd and 4
13:32, 4th Quarter
The 49ers came out of a singleback - 2 WR, 2 TE, 1 RB - formation on a second-and-medium situation. The Giants defense came on showing pressure, stacking the box with 8 men. It looks as if New York was either expecting run, or looking to go after Alex Smith.
Smith took the snap from center; the Giants rushed 5, dropped 6 with man coverage across the board except for inside linebacker Greg Jones. Alex Smith had a nice pocket, with the offensive line providing him with good protection. As the 49ers receivers drew coverage deep, space opened up underneath, and Davis filled in.
Deon Grant was covering Delanie Walker who ran through coverage, holding linebacker Greg Jones who playing zone in the middle (or should have been in man and blew the coverage assignment). And the one player defenses shouldn't leave by himself, Vernon Davis, came across the field all alone.
Smith quickly saw the opportunity, wound up and fired to Davis, leading him into an open lane down the left sideline. Davis' cross was only 3-yards deep from the line of scrimmage but he was able to turn this into a big gainer.
The play, which started at the NYG-31, was now at their 15-yard line -- Davis had a full head of steam and no one was in the neighborhood. With his great speed, Davis used this unoccupied part of the field (and sideline) to his advantage. He far outran the linebackers, defensive line and corners on the other side of the field, but he would have a couple more defensive backs to deal with before the end zone.
Regardless of a possible blown coverage, Davis has yards after catch ability, so it's about getting him the ball in open space and allowing him to be the freak athlete he is.
While I was watching this play live, the rationale in my head was firing off that no two players were going to stop Davis at the 1-yard with the head of steam he was carrying -- thank you Sports Science. Davis' size and momentum was too much to overcome for the defensive backs. This is largely why the 49ers like to provide him with open space and get him to that second level of defenses, because once he gets going, he's hard to stop.
The crossing routes work well for Davis because they allow him to use his athleticism without getting too burnt out on plays he doesn't get the ball. But the threat remains that if Vernon is open, he can hurt teams with the big play, so teams can never be too careful, even when he's crossing underneath.
He has the speed to burn defenders sideline-to-sideline, and since he knows where he's going before they do, more often than not he can get ahead of them. This route should become even more effective with Randy Moss now on San Francisco. It is a rarity to have someone who can stretch the field like Moss can, so he will be manipulating coverages to Davis' benefit.
And lastly, Alex Smith typically delivers on those short-to-intermediate routes, which are a staple in the West Coast offense. On slants, crosses, in's and out's, Smith puts the ball right on the numbers and when he leads receivers well, it results in nice gainers. This is how the 49ers would chip away at a defense last year; now, the added dimensions to their unit will make them even more threatening when they repeat things they liked to do in 2011.
In 2012, Vernon Davis might be finding himself with a lot more opportunities like the one he saw on this play against the Giants.