Posted January 16, 2012

Break It Down: Vernon Davis comes through in the clutch

New Orleans Saints, San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers and Vernon Davis found ways to exploit the Saints' safeties all game long. (ZUMAPRESS.com)

In Break It Down, I will go back and analyze the Xs and Os of a play or performance from the NFL week that stood out above the rest.

Way back in Week 6 of this NFL season, the Saints’ defense found itself in the “Break It Down” spotlight after allowing 303 yards passing and two touchdowns to Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman. In that game, the Bucs used the Saints’ unique defensive approach against them, as Freeman found holes in the secondary and Earnest Graham took advantage of some running room.

Some of the same issues that popped up then — and, really, all season — for New Orleans led to Vernon Davis’ monster afternoon Saturday in the NFL playoffs’ divisional round.

A quick refresher on the Saints’ scheme, which San Francisco torched on Davis’ first touchdown, a 49-yarder that put the 49ers up 7-0. You can get a good look at New Orleans’ setup prior to the play, with safety Roman Harper (yellow box) playing Davis in press coverage at the line, while the Saints’ other safety, Malcolm Jenkins (red box) sags about 20 yards deep.

This is not an unusual look for the Saints, who tend to use one of their safeties — usually Harper — almost as an extra linebacker, then drop their second safety way, way back.

The approach backfired time and again versus Davis.

There was nothing too tricky about the route Davis ran on this play. The 49ers cleared the left side of the field and had their tight end run to space. The Saints’ issues on the play were apparent before QB Alex Smith even let go of the ball — Davis had beaten Harper off the line and Jenkins was still several yards from closing.

Jenkins made things worse for New Orleans by whiffing on the tackle and taking out Harper in the process. Davis bounced off that hit attempt and waltzed into the end zone for a touchdown.

Let’s fast forward to the fourth quarter, when Davis undressed the Saints’ secondary. Right after New Orleans had taken a 24-23 lead with 4:02 left, the 49ers faced a 2nd-and-10 from their own 33. This time, San Francisco lined Davis up wide left, where he was matched up one-on-one with Jenkins.

Jenkins gave Davis a little cushion and backed off about six or seven yards. He still couldn’t stay with the 49ers’ dynamic tight end, who simply ran a “go” route up the sideline.

Smith delivered a perfect ball over Davis’ outside shoulder for a 37-yard gain, but Jenkins never had a chance to break it up.

A couple talking points here:

1. Davis’ versatility allows the 49ers to use him in a number of different ways within their offensive set, making him that much more of a challenge for opposing defenses. This was a theme throughout the NFL’s divisional round, be it with Davis, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Jimmy Graham and so on. The league is loaded with talented tight ends right now, and teams are getting more and more creative with how they utilize them.

2. San Francisco’s offensive line did not win every battle Saturday — Smith was sacked four times and Frank Gore finished with less than 100 yards rushing — but down the stretch, it turned in a dominating effort.

Case in point: The deep ball to Davis. New Orleans actually brought the house on the play, sending eight defenders at Smith. The 49ers picked everyone up for long enough to let Smith set and deliver that outside ball.

Less than a minute after Davis’ 37-yard grab, Smith took one to the house to put San Francisco back on top. New Orleans answered again, reclaiming a 32-29 lead with 1:37 remaining.

At the 40-second mark, for the second possession in a row, San Francisco found itself in a 2nd-and-10 from its own 33. The 49ers moved Davis back inside for this play, and the Saints countered with Jenkins up tight in man coverage.

But the Saints’ issues continued to repeat themselves on the play. Smith had time to survey the field and find Davis, who again managed to get past Jenkins.

Similar to Davis’ earlier touchdown catch, the Saints’ scheme came back to bite them on this play. With Jenkins unable to stay with Davis off the line and Harper playing a good 30 yards deep, there’s a huge gap in the middle of the field.

Remember, this play started on San Francisco’s 33 … and here’s our first glimpse of Harper, the deep safety, at the New Orleans 40-yard line.

That’s 27 yards downfield before Harper comes into the play. Just like Jenkins earlier, he blew the tackle, which allowed Davis to pick up a few extra yards.

From the scheme to the execution, this was a total breakdown by the Saints at the worst possible time. And that big catch by Davis put the 49ers in position to go for the win in regulation, when it looked originally like San Francisco might struggle to get into field goal territory.

Finally, the game-clinching touchdown grab by Davis. True to form, the 49ers moved Davis around — this time, he’s back to Smith’s left, stacked up with fellow tight end Justin Peele.

The Saints changed up their alignment on this play, too, dropping the tight-man defense for a zone.

Peele and Davis ran a pretty routine two-man route here — Peele checked up on a little hook pattern at the 10, while Davis ran a deeper slant to the goal line. Saints’ cornerback Patrick Robinson (No. 21, far left) started to fade toward the back corner, then changed his mind when he realized no other receivers were headed that direction.

His split-second hesitation, though left Peele momentarily open in the middle, which in turn caused Saints’ linebacker Scott Shanle (No. 58) to cheat up toward Peele.

Davis then dropped right in behind Shanle and in front of Harper.

Smith delivered an absolute strike, Davis shielded Harper from being able to make a play and the rest, as they say, is history.

Vernon Davis is a difficult matchup, no matter the circumstances. Like some of the league’s other elite tight ends, he’s fast enough to run by most defenders but also strong enough to shake off physical coverage.

The Saints learned those lessons the hard way Sunday. No matter whether Harper or Jenkins was on the 49ers’ big tight end, the Saints could not come up with any answers on how to stop him.

San Francisco, in turn, took full advantage of New Orleans’ unusual defensive scheme, sending Davis to the areas of the field that the Saints often leave open. Davis came through repeatedly — and because of that, the 49ers are headed to the NFC title game.

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