SANTA CLARA — Vernon Davis secured the 49ers' playoff-opening win over the New Orleans Saints last season with a last-minute touchdown catch on a play called: "Vernon Post." With the 49ers primed for another playoff run, Davis' role has become more like "Vernon Ghost." Their star tight end's vanishing act is one of the 49ers' few mysteries heading into their Jan.12 playoff opener at Candlestick Park. What is known: It's an issue that needs resolution if the team plans to go the distance.
"You would think they would design more plays for Vernon Davis," Jerry Rice said on radio Friday. "They've got to get him more involved if they want to get to the Super Bowl in New Orleans."
Davis' season started strong, with four touchdowns in the first three games. He didn't score again until Colin Kaepernick's first start Nov. 19, when a six-catch night had Davis declare that "someone took the handcuffs off me."
Since then, he has no touchdowns and just six catches in six games, partly because of his acknowledged lack of timing and experience with Kaepernick.
"I'm really surprised with Vernon Davis that his productivity went down, because of the type of athlete he is," Rice added in the radio interview. "He's just not human on the football field, and I don't understand why he's not being more involved."
Opposing defenses might be most responsible for Davis' lowest production since 2008: 41 receptions, 548 yards, five touchdowns.
Davis' vertical routes have been slowed by opponents "bracketing" him. Typically, a linebacker will check him at the line of scrimmage and a defensive back will hover over Davis' planned route.
"It's the weirdest thing. They won't let me breathe," Davis said. "I've never seen it like this."
Neither has running back Frank Gore, who said: "They've got him bracketed over the top and underneath."
Former 49ers tight end Brent Jones has seen that defensive strategy succeed over the past six games, and Jones offered some solutions.
"In zone (coverage), route running and finding holes becomes more relevant," Jones said Friday by phone. "You've got to have different formations, you've got to put him in motion, and that could change the way a defense has to play you."
Jones' gut instinct tells him the 49ers will use this week to "intentionally create ways" for Kaepernick to find Davis, who's made only one Pro Bowl in his seven-year career.
Rice, who started alongside Jones on the 49ers' last Super Bowl team 18 years ago, called Davis a "matchup nightmare" because of his speed and 6-foot-3, 250-pound frame.
With Davis attracting enough attention, passing lanes have opened for Michael Crabtree's career-best season, Randy Moss' occasional reception and fellow tight end Delanie Walker's surging production.
"People say his numbers have dropped, but there are plenty of things Vernon does that are not in the stats," tight ends coach Reggie Davis said. "He understands it's a team game. His time will come."
Davis thrived in his playoff debut a year ago. In the 36-32 first-round win over the Saints, he had seven receptions for 180 yards and two touchdowns. In the NFC Championship game loss to the New York Giants, Davis also had two touchdown catches among three receptions for 112 yards.
"Vernon, with his speed, can hurt people down field, so he's always one focus of defenses," Jones said. "Last year in the playoffs, it seemed like we had him in the slot a decent amount of times."
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