ASHBURN, Va. -- The production dropped the past two games; the big plays slowed down long before. The Washington Redskins still use tight end Vernon Davis quite a bit and still want to get him the ball. Lately, that has been tougher. And it has been even harder finding him for the big plays he made earlier in the season.
Some of that results from not having fellow tight end Jordan Reed available. Some of that stems from using more three-receiver sets.
Davis was highly productive in the first three games he played this season without Reed, including the Week 3 victory over Oakland. In those games, Davis caught 18 passes for 206 yards and a touchdown. But in the past three games, Davis has been limited to five catches for 82 yards. The Redskins almost assuredly will play a seventh game without Reed on Sunday on the road against the Los Angeles Chargers. Reed hasn’t practiced since Nov. 8 because of a hamstring injury.
Perhaps Davis' success turns this weekend: The Chargers rank 14th in the NFL in catches allowed by tight ends (50) and 25th in yards per gain (11.96).
“Jordan's an incredible talent,” Davis said. “Having him out there is awesome. But we do have other guys -- Niles Paul, Jeremy Sprinkle -- who can do really well and do a great job. They do different things than Jordan, so defenses have to account for him and they have to really be worried about him. He’s explosive. Just his impact on the game is tremendous, so having him out there opens a lot of opportunities for other guys.”
It’s not as if Davis hasn’t been helping. There were times in the Dallas loss last week in which two defenders would cheat toward Davis, creating an opening elsewhere. That opened up a 13-yard grab for Ryan Grant on one route, for example. On receiver Josh Doctson’s touchdown catch in that game, the corner didn’t sink deeper because of Davis’ presence underneath.
Those scenes played out in the previous game vs. the New York Giants. Another difference: Against New York, Davis was often covered by safety Landon Collins. Typically, he would cover Reed. Against Collins, Davis’ speed advantage was negated.
With Reed on the field in a two-tight end set, Davis caught five passes for 127 yards – with three catches for 30 or more yards. In those looks, the Redskins thrived.
“That’s one of the things we miss and wish we had out there,” Davis said.
Against San Francisco, for example, the Redskins lined up with Reed and Davis in three-point stances on the left and right side, respectively. The 49ers remained in their base defense and had eight defenders in the box, anticipating a run with back Samaje Perine. A safety was aligned with Reed; a linebacker was over Davis, three yards off the ball. Davis won the mismatch easily for a 51-yard gain.
“Having those two out there at the same time is one of our best personnel groupings,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. “We don’t do it as much, not because Niles [Paul] can’t do it -- we just have been in the three-receiver sets a little bit more to try to get Jamison [Crowder], Josh [Doctson] and Ryan [Grant] out there at the same time.”
Indeed, the Redskins have used three-receiver sets an average of 11 more times per game without Reed. Those two-tight-end sets remain effective, just not as explosive. With Reed, they’ve used 116 two-tight-end sets and gained 796 yards, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Without him, they’ve used it 62 times for 365 yards.
Davis’ game reflects that difference -- he’s productive, but not as explosive without Reed. Davis has caught 24 passes out of three-receiver sets, averaging 11.83 yards per catch. He has caught 10 passes out of two-tight-end looks, averaging 14.30 yards. He has caught two passes from that look in games without Reed (gaining 42 yards).
“Of course we want Jordan out there,” Davis said. “He’s injured. There’s nothing we can do about that. … I go out and do what they ask me to do; I go out and catch passes and expect myself to have a good game.”