Walker/Davis duo creating opportunities for 49ers
The 49ers don’t have a go-to receiver this season, and that’s actually something that has benefitted their slowly emerging offense. With tight end Vernon Davis constantly attracting double-team coverage from opponents, the Niners are finding success spreading the ball around to myriad targets, an approach giving them production and results that belie their No. 29 NFL ranking in passing offense.
San Francisco isn’t putting up the big passing numbers some might expect from an 8-1 team that’s running away with the NFC West and seriously contending for home-field advantage in the playoffs. But one figure that does stand out is the number of targets the Niners are getting involved in an aerial attack that has seven players with 10 receptions or more.
“I think that’s why you see what our record is today,” tight end Delanie Walker said Friday. “A lot of people are touching the ball and then having opportunities to make plays. I think that’s what’s going to keep us in the promised land of getting these Ws.”
Walker was the hot target during last week’s pivotal 27-20 victory over the New York Giants that gave the streaking 49ers a stranglehold on the second-best record in the NFC behind the undefeated Green Bay Packers.
Walker caught a career-high six passes for 69 yards, becoming the fifth different player in San Francisco’s nine games this season to lead the team in receptions.
The 49ers don’t have a player ranked higher than 44th among the NFL leaders in receptions, but their diverse use of multiple targets has become a constant during the seven-game winning streak San Francisco takes into Sunday’s game against NFC West rival Arizona.
“Our passing game numbers don’t just jump up at you and slap you in the face,” Walker said. “But we get the job done. A lot of people are touching the balls, different receivers, different tight ends, the running backs. It’s not big numbers, but it’s doing the job and getting it done. We don’t really look at stats anyway.”
The only stat that really matters to these 49ers is the number in their win column. That goes to the team-first mentality first-year coach Jim Harbaugh has ingrained in his team, a mindset that filters down to those on the receiving end of passing plays.
Harbaugh didn’t hesitate even a millisecond on Friday when NinersDigest asked who, if he had to pick a name, Harbaugh would say is the go-to receiver on his team.
“They all are,” Harbaugh replied. “That’s how we look at it. We have talented players at multiple positions and they know how to get open and catch the rock, and then know what to do with it after they catch it. On every play, everybody’s running, everybody’s alert. Everybody’s involved on every pass play.”
Some are involved more than others.
Davis is one of the few players on offense that plays practically every down in every game. But his receiving numbers are down compared to the past two years, when Davis became the first tight end in franchise history to lead the 49ers in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns in consecutive seasons.
“There’s nothing I can do about it,” said Davis, who had 56 receptions last year and a career-high 78 during his Pro Bowl season of 2009. “This is the most attention I’ve ever got in my life.”
“They try to get me the ball,” Davis continued, “but I can’t help it if I’ve got a lot of people on me. I still have to make things happen every opportunity I get. But, hey, I’m helping the team, and I’m excited about it. We’re winning. If we can keep on doing this and win games, that’s fine with me.”
Davis is San Francisco’s leader again this year with 34 catches, but the smothering attention he’s receiving has opened the airwaves with opportunity for others.
Davis, Walker and wide receivers Michael Crabtree, Joshua Morgan and Ted Ginn Jr. all have led the 49ers in receptions this year, and rookie running backs Kendall Hunter and Bruce Miller have joined two-time Pro Bowler Frank Gore as options out of the backfield.
The 49ers recently have been working another top receiving weapon, wideout Braylon Edwards, back into the starting lineup after he missed four games following a Week 2 knee injury.
Quarterback Alex Smith has even completed passes this season to left tackle Joe Staley on a tackle-eligible play and to 330-pound nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga, who occasionally lines up with the offense at fullback in coordinator Greg Roman’s system.
“Every week we change it up,” Walker said. “Defenses and D-coordinators are trying to figure out what we’re doing. We can go to everybody. And that’s a big part of what’s helping Alex out in G-Ro’s offense. Nobody’s a decoy. Everyone’s live, and anyone can get the ball. We’re not running guys off. Everybody’s trying to get open.”
The 49ers have primarily relied this year on a strong rushing attack led by Gore and have been conservative in the passing game with Smith, who has been efficient but not prolific. Smith’s passer rating of 97.3 ranks seventh in the NFL, but he ranks just 23rd in the league in both completions and passing yards.
But with Gore battling injuries and being limited to zero yards rushing for the first time in his career, the 49ers were forced to rely more on passing against the Giants. But that had been the plan entering the game anyway.
Smith distributed the ball uniformly as eight players finished with at least one reception and the team’s ball-control, limited-mistakes offense didn’t skip a beat.
San Francisco’s wideouts had eight receptions against the Giants while Walker and Davis combined for nine catches in the game, illustrating the tough matchup they present opponents.
Davis and the versatile Walker – who lines up everywhere in different offensive sets – have combined for seven of San Francisco’s 11 touchdown receptions. They have created such problems for opposing defenses in two-tight end formations that now even Walker is seeing double coverage in some sets.
That happened last week, allowing Davis to get wide open on a short crossing pattern early in the fourth quarter for a catch he turned into a 31-yard scoring play that put San Francisco ahead to stay.
“You saw what happened when they focused on Delanie. I got open underneath and I scored,” Davis said. “When they’re on me, then Delanie’s getting open, and if they keep looking to me, a lot of other guys can get open. So there’s no way they can really stop us.”