Grant Cohn: Why the 49ers need Vernon Davis

  • San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis warms up before an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons in San Francisco, Monday, Dec. 23, 2013. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

Forget about contracts and holdouts for a moment. Let's focus on why Vernon Davis is vital to the 49ers' offense.

Before I hit you with a barrage of X's and O's, there's one stat you should know about Davis. He scored a touchdown once every four catches last season — the best rate in the NFL. If he had played in an offense that didn't attempt the fewest passes in the league, who knows, Davis might have scored 20 touchdowns.

Davis is by far the 49ers' No. 1 threat on offense, and defenses treat him accordingly. Take the Panthers. They had the second-best defense in football last season, and they played the Niners twice — once during the regular season and once during the postseason.

The Panthers knocked out Vernon Davis during the second quarter of Game 1. During the first two quarters — before Davis left the game with a concussion — the Panthers used defensive schemes designed primarily to frustrate Davis. After he left the game, the Panthers switched to defenses that primarily frustrated wide receivers. Let me explain.

When Davis was in the game, the Panthers used "Cover 3" (a zone defense) or "Cover 1" — a man-to-man defense. Both defenses have just one safety deep in the middle of the field. In Cover 1, the free safety plays deep and the strong safety covers Davis man-to-man. In Cover 3, the free safety plays center field and the cornerbacks drop deep down the sideline, so if Davis runs deep down the middle, he runs into the free safety. And if he cuts to either sideline, he runs into a cornerback. By using Cover 3 and Cover 1, the Panthers never had to cover Davis man-to-man with a linebacker — they always covered him with a safety or a cornerback or both. Better matchups for the Panthers.

After Davis left Game 1, the Panthers switched to Cover 2 in the second half. Cover 2 involves two safeties playing deep and a linebacker covering the tight end. The Panthers' middle linebacker — Luke Kuechly — is better than the 49ers' backup tight end — Vance McDonald. If the tight end isn't a threat — and McDonald isn't a threat yet — there is no sense in covering him with a strong safety. Cover 2 allows the two cornerbacks and the two safeties to double-cover the wide receivers. But with Davis on the field, they can't do that. His presence makes it harder on the defense.

Just look at the playoff game between the 49ers and Panthers last season. Davis had just one catch for 1 yard, but he was the MVP of the offense.

The 49ers' first drive of the game would have been a three-and-out if not for Davis. It was third-and-10. After the snap, Davis ran a shallow crossing route from right to left and four Panthers followed him — two linebackers, the nickelback and the right cornerback. The right cornerback was left alone with Quinton Patton, had no help. He stared at Davis and let Patton jog alone down the left sideline almost unopposed. Colin Kaepernick hit Patton for an easy 23-yard gain. The 49ers scored a field goal at the end of the drive.

At the end of the first half, the 49ers were down four points at Carolina's 1. The Panthers left Davis one-on-one with Kuechly on second-and-goal. Davis beat Kuechly to the back-right corner of the end zone and caught a touchdown pass from Kaepernick. Bad things happen to opposing defenses when they try to cover Davis with a linebacker.

In the third quarter, the 49ers were at midfield and winning by three. Davis ran a quick out route to his right, and three Panthers followed him — a linebacker, the strong safety and the left cornerback. The left cornerback was so focused on Davis he let Anquan Boldin run right past him. A repeat of the Patton-play in the first quarter, except on the other side of the field. Kaepernick hit a wide-open Boldin for a 45-yard gain, bringing the offense to the Panthers' 2. Kaepernick ran the ball into the end zone two plays later.

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