The San Francisco 49ers have lost all three games in which Vernon Davis has left early or not played in at all. His absence isn't to blame entirely, but given the team's reliance on two-tight end formations, the correlation is strong between the offense's performance and his presence on the field.
In losses to the Colts and Panthers, Colin Kaepernick netted 139 and 45 passing yards respectively. In Kaepernick's two best performances through the air against the Packers and Cardinals, he passed for 642 yards combined with Davis accounting for 278 and four of the team's five passing scores.
Thanks to the good folks at Pro Football Focus, we have the data on the team's personnel groupings that paint a clear picture of Davis' fingerprints on the offense.
For the season, San Francisco has run 40 percent of its plays in either "12" or "22" personnel that put two tight ends on the field.
Prior to Davis leaving the game with a concussion in the second quarter Sunday, they ran two-tight end sets on 11 of 24 plays (45 percent). After Davis went down, 17 of their 33 plays (52 percent) came with three wide receivers. For the season, the 49ers have used three wideouts or "11" personnel in just 23 percent of their snaps. They did not have a scoring drive after Davis left the game in Sunday's one-point loss.
"I think that definitely contributed to, one of the things that contributed to the rhythm of the offense and no I'm not going to use any excuses or is anybody going to alibi. But, we did lose two tight ends in the game, [TE Garrett] Celek before Vernon and that contributed," Jim Harbaugh said Monday.
If any deductions can be made from their first 24 plays, the use of two tight ends figured heavily into the team's game plan against the Panthers. And considering Davis has accounted for seven of the 49ers' nine passing touchdowns this season, his loss Sunday was considerable for Kaepernick and the passing game. He's also a valuable asset as a blocker in the running game.
With Celek also out, San Francisco didn't have the availability of its most frequently used offensive grouping, nullifying the use of nearly half the offense the team prepared to execute throughout the week.
Until Michael Crabtree returns, San Francisco needs Davis in the lineup in order for the passing game to remain a viable complement to the league's No. 4 rushing attack that averages 147.7 yards each week.
"It means a whole lot to have (Davis) on the field," Frank Gore said Tuesday. "You got to watch out for him. Big guy can stretch the field, can block. It will be big when he's on the field."
Kaepernick has received plenty of criticism this week about his development since last season's Super Bowl run, including some from ESPN's Trent Dilfer, who said Kaepernick hasn't been good at making progressions beyond his first read.
"I think you should ask him if he knows what my progression is first before he says that," Kaepernick said Wednesday.
As Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle points out , Kaepernick has a 97.3 quarterback rating with Davis on the field and 33.5 mark when he's been absent.
Davis is back at practice this week after sustaining his second concussion since last December, but his status for Sunday's pivotal showdown in New Orleans remains unknown. It's unclear if he will be cleared for contact this week during practice.
"I'm doing fine, feeling great," Davis told reporters Tuesday. "All I can do is to wait for the doctors to tell me what I can do next."
The 49ers have a roster spot open after releasing receiver Kyle Williams and Perrish Cox Tuesday. If Davis is unable to go, they could fill it with practice squad tight end Derek Carrier, who is imitating the Saints' Jimmy Graham this week in practice with the scout team.
"We'll see," Harbaugh said when asked about Carrier. "We'll take a look at that this week and excited to watch the fellas go out and run around today."
*Statistics from Pro Football Focus were used in this report*
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