How Vernon Davis fits into 49ers

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

The 49ers' pass protection is probably the hottest issue facing the team through four games. The role of tight end Vernon Davis also ranks high on the list. These issues are related.

I just re-watched the 49ers' first 58 offensive plays against New Orleans to chart Davis' role in the offense.

Quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan completed 6 of 8 passes for 91 yards with two sacks on 10 plays with Davis helping in pass protection. O'Sullivan's passer rating was 112.0 on those eight passes. Davis blocked Saints defensive end Will Smith effectively enough on one of those sacks, but O'Sullivan held the ball too long and Smith chased him down across the field.

[Note: Thanks to contributor Mr. Zero for pointing out that Davis stayed in for protection on the first O'Sullivan interception. This was the pass I thougth was tipped. If you add the intercepion, that lofty 112.0 rating gets chopped down to 60.2.]

When Davis was not helping in pass protection, O'Sullivan completed 11 of 26 passes for 159 yards with one touchdown, two interceptions and four sacks. His rating on these plays was 43.6. [Note: Those stats do not count the final desperation drive, which was excluded from the 58-play sample.]

Watching this game made me think Davis was one of the best pass protectors on the team. He regularly blocked Smith and fellow defensive end Charles Grant, tough duty for any tight end. Davis was effective as a run blocker. During the third quarter, he blocked Smith twice and Grant twice on runs that gained 9, 9, 6 and 7 yards.

The broadcast video doesn't allow for analysis of route running, but Davis hasn't been known for polished routes or the surest hands. I think it's also fair to point out that offensive coordinator Mike Martz traditionally hasn't featured tight ends as receivers. And so Davis finished the game with one catch for 19 yards, on a screen, no less.

Davis played 40 of the 58 snaps under consideration by my count. This included 14 running plays that averaged 5.2 yards per carry. The 25 pass plays featured six sacks, seven incomplete passes and the two interceptions.

As noted, Davis helped in pass protection on 10 passing plays (11 with the interception on the potentially tipped pass). Here are my notes specific to Davis on each of these plays:

  • Davis pass blocks Grant effectively man-to-man. 23-yard pass to Isaac Bruce.

  • Davis driven back by Grant into the pocket, but O'Sullivan got off the pass anyway. Frank Gore picks up Scott Shanle. 9-yard pass to Bruce.

  • Davis blocks Will Smith effectively on the outside. Sedrick Ellis comes inside on left guard Adam Snyder and left tackle Joe Staley doesn't help him. Sack.

  • Davis blocks Smith again. Staley helps late. O'Sullivan holds the ball too long and Smith tracks him down. Sack. Fumble lost.

  • Quick throw to Bruce had no chance for completion. Not enough time for pass protection to become a factor. Incomplete pass.

  • Davis stayed home in protection but was not needed. Great job by the five offensive linemen. 24-yard pass to Gore.

  • Quick throw for Zak Keasey, who did not have time to turn around. Bruce faked the end-around. Pressure was there quickly and O'Sullivan bailed on the play. Incomplete pass.

  • Davis pass protects on right side. Quick throw. 12-yard pass to Bruce.

  • Davis and Gore in backfield. Davis stays home to pass protect but is not needed. 5-yard pass to Bruce.

  • Davis stays in to protect but is not needed. O'Sullivan throws to the end zone and the pass appears to be tipped. Interception. This was the play I initially omitted.

  • Davis pass blocks early in play, then releases on screen. Gets a couple of good blocks from the line and races upfield for 19-yard gain.

I also charted whether the 49ers used five, six or more players in pass protection. The 49ers used five-man protections -- meaning only the offensive linemen were blocking -- on nine plays with Davis on the field as a route runner. These nine plays produced three sacks, three incomplete passes, an interception and gains of 9 and 21 yards. Ugly.

Taking a broader view without regard for Davis, I charted how the 49ers' pass-protection numbers produced against the Saints:

  • Five-man protections (14 plays): 5 of 9 passing for 88 yards and one touchdown with three sacks and one interception. Completed passes gained 9, 22, 21 and 36 yards.

  • Six-man protections (21 plays): 10 of 18 passing for 136 yards with three sacks. Completed passes gained 23, 10, 12, 22, 24, 2, 5, 8, 11 and 19 yards.

  • Seven-man protections (2 plays): 0 of 2 passing with one interception.

  • Eight-man protections (2 plays): 2 of 2 passing for 21 yards. Completed passes gained 9 and 12 yards.

  • Nine-man protections (1 play): 0 of 1 passing

One other thing I noticed in this game: Gore rarely blocked anyone when he stayed home as a pass protector. I don't know why this might have been, but it's something I'd like to ask about.