The play was a thing of beauty: Colin Kaepernick faked a handoff, set up deep behind the line of scrimmage and then fired a rocket of a pass deep for Vernon Davis, who reached out to snag the ball while in full stride.
The 52-yard touchdown strike gave the 49ers a 17-0 lead late in the first half en route to a 33-14 49ers victory over Tampa Bay.
“It was a heck of a throw,” 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh told reporters after the game. “We had really good protection on the play. But the way Vernon extended and ran that ball down, it looked like Willie Mays running down a fly ball to center field.”
This season, Davis, the 49ers’ terrific tight end, has indeed been Mays-like, with new displays of prowess almost every week. He’s hurdled over defenders, outrun defensive backs, made key third-down grabs and blocked with precision and power.
Though the 49ers offense seems to have found its stride only recently, Davis has been consistent since the opening game.
This season, Davis had 49 catches for 805 yards, 12 touchdowns and an average of 16.4 yards per catch, the highest of his eight-season pro career. Though the 49ers passing game struggled for most of the season because of a lack of productive wide receivers to complement Anquan Boldin, Davis and Boldin combined to give the 49ers a pair of dependable pass-catchers. Now, with Michael Crabtree back in the lineup, all three are thriving.
On Sunday, Davis had five catches for 79 yards while Crabtree had five receptions for 45 and his first TD of the season, and Boldin had three catches for 43 yards.
But it’s Davis who’s making his case this season to be ranked among the NFL’s best offensive weapons. His wide receiver speed with a 6-foot-3, 250-pound frame makes him a matchup problem for most secondaries.
On NFL.com’s Around The League “What We Learned” takeaways from Week 15, Davis certainly caught the writers’ attention: “With all due respect to Jimmy Graham, Vernon Davis is playing tight end at a higher level than anyone in the game right now. His 52-yard touchdown catch was a thing of beauty. Humans that big aren’t supposed to move that well.”
Graham, the Saints’ Pro Bowler, leads all NFL tight ends in receptions this season with 76 for 1,071 yards and 14 touchdowns. The former college basketball player is Drew Brees’ favorite target and he, like Davis, is a matchup problem for defensive backs. Right behind Graham is Browns’ tight end Jordan Cameron, with 75 catches for 848 yards and seven TDs.
Standing in third place is Davis, with his 49 catches, who has played one fewer game and hasn’t had nearly the opportunities of Graham and Cameron. Graham has been targeted 123 times; Cameron has been thrown to 111 times. Davis has been targeted 76 times. In fact, of the top five pass-catching tight ends in 2013, four of the five (Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez are Nos. 4 and 5) have been thrown to more than 100 times.
But the 49ers use Davis as just one piece of their offensive game plan. The 49ers rank No. 3 in the league in rushing attempts (452) and No. 5 in rushing yards and are dead last in pass attempts (362). So, for Davis to have had the impact he’s had this season shows how brilliant he’s been. When he does get his hands on the ball, he makes things happen.
His 12th touchdown catch this year made him the first tight end in NFL history with two seasons of 12 or more TD catches. He had 13 TD receptions in 2009. He’s also caught TD passes in five consecutive games, the longest streak by a San Francisco receiver since 2001, when Terrell Owens did it.
Even before the 49ers beat the Bucs Sunday, Tampa Bay head coach Greg Schiano knew Davis posed a special challenge.
“It doesn’t matter what personnel group they’re in with Vernon Davis. This guy is a sub-4.40 (40-yard dash) tight end,” Schiano told reporters last week. “He may be the only one walking the planet.”