Emerging Davis could be X-factor in Seattle

For the first time since the opening game of the season, the 49ers are getting a nice return on their investment in rookie tight end Vernon Davis, whom the club chose with the No. 6 overall pick in the 2006 NFL draft.

Davis, demonstrating his unique blend of size and speed, became a prominent figure in San Francisco's offensive attack during last week's 30-19 loss to the Packers, catching three passes for 74 yards, including a tackle-breaking 52-yard touchdown catch-and-run.

"It felt good," Davis said. "That's what I can do. I'm going to make them miss."

Davis supplied the highlight of the day for the 49ers when he caught a fourth-quarter pass from Alex Smith and rolled through the Packers secondary, at times running through would-be tacklers and at times darting past them with his uncommon speed.

The 49ers will be looking for Davis to build on that performance when they play two-time defending NFC West champion Seattle tonight at Qwest Field. San Francisco will need Davis to continue to emerge as a threat in the passing game and contribute his typical strong blocking in the run game to prevent the Seahawks from clinching their third division title in a row.

The 49ers signed Davis to the most lucrative contract in NFL history for a tight end at the end of July, and now that investment is beginning to pay dividends.

Davis' development as a rookie has been slowed by injuries. He has played in just five full games because of a broken leg sustained Sept. 24.

"I can kind of feel his pain a little bit, as far as this being his rookie year and having an injury," said Smith, who had a knee injury that forced him to miss games as a rookie last season, hampering his early development. "I see him getting into the flow of the game now, getting into the mix a lot and getting some balls thrown his way."

Davis finally appears to be catching on after having his development abruptly halted in September. On the season, Davis has caught 10 passes for 143 yards and two touchdowns. The 49ers also made it a point to get the ball in his hands in the run game, too, as he gained 9 hard yards on a reverse against the Packers, the first carry of his career.

Davis clearly still has a lot to learn about playing tight end in the NFL. He said he understands that he can't be successful on physical talent alone.

"If you look at the film, nobody can run with me, whether it's a defensive back or linebackers," Davis said. "But in this league in order to run a route, you have to run it right. You can't just go out there and run it.

"Every route I run, I try to take advantage of my speed, whether it's a short route or a post-corner route, whatever it is. I run as fast as I can to try to get open."

Davis is unlike any tight end in the league, with his combination of size (6-feet-3, 253 pounds) and wide-receiver speed. Because he runs so well, the temptation might be to use him on deep routes that showcase his speed.

But offensive coordinator Norv Turner said Davis' speed should make him even more effective on shallow patterns, as well.

"His ability to run should help him run all the underneath routes because people aren't going to crowd him," Turner said. "It should help him get more high-percentage things underneath. But those underneath routes and timed routes are precision routes. And that's where repetition and experience really come into play."

Smith and Davis weren't always on the same page last week, but when they do connect, the results can be tremendous.

"The more you play with people and build rapport with receivers you get an understanding for each other and where they want the balls to get thrown," Smith said. "The longer you play with them, the better feel you have."

Davis said he believes his route-running prowess is coming along. Although Davis did not come into the league with the reputation as a dominant blocker, that part of his game has proved to be his best attribute thus far in the NFL.

His blocking has helped spring running back Frank Gore and the league's ninth-ranked rushing game. Gore had a franchise-record 212 yards against the Seahawks in San Francisco's 20-14 victory over Seattle on Nov. 19, but Davis played only a handful of snaps in that game as he came back from his injury. The 49ers are a better rushing team with Davis in the regular lineup, and he'll certainly get his opportunities to pave the way for Gore tonight.

Davis said it is just a matter of time before he becomes more of a factor in the passing game, and that's certainly the way the 49ers feel, too. That time could come tonight, and it wouldn't be soon enough for the 49ers.

"Just seeing what he can do is exciting," Smith said. "He is a tough match-up for anybody. The more he plays and understands, the harder matchup he'll be for defenders."

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