Niners need Davis more involved in air attack

Vernon Davis strolls into Sunday's Week 6 encounter with Philadelphia ranked 39th in the NFL in receptions among tight ends. We repeat: 39th. Among tight ends. With just five catches in five games and only two over the past four weeks, Davis has become MIA in San Francisco's passing game, leaving observers to wonder how and when he might find his way back in it.

Davis is sort of wondering the same thing. But he's not losing faith that it will happen.

In fact, even though he's on a pace for a 16-catch season, the chiseled third-year veteran still has confidence he can overtake his previous career high of 52 receptions in 2007 once he gets rolling within the offense.

"I believe in that," Davis said this week. "Even though I have five catches, I still believe in that. I still believe that can happen."

Still, it's been a bit difficult for Davis to believe. There was a lot of anticipation that he would become featured in the attack this year with Mike Martz at the controls of the team's revamped offense. Both Martz and Davis have talked about the exciting possibilities presented by Martz exploiting Davis' skills within his detailed passing system.

But Davis has had the ball in his hands a minimal amount of times heading into the middle of October. What makes him think that will change?

"Just because I know I have to allow the coaches and stuff like that to call the correct plays and stuff like that to help me get open," Davis said. "As long as I keep running my routes and playing full speed and doing what I do best, which is hustling and playing the way Vernon plays, then things will start to happen."

But so far, this is not the way Davis envisioned things would happen with Martz calling the shots as the 49ers prepare for a pivotal NFC battle with the visiting Eagles.

Davis was held without a reception during last week's 30-21 loss to New England. The 49ers produced just 199 yards of offense in that game, by far their lowest total since Martz joined the team.

That statistic underscores the fact the 49ers simply aren't getting Davis – one of the team's fastest players and most explosive offensive weapons – involved in the passing game as much as he or they would like.

"I consider myself a playmaker," Davis said. "I want to help out as much as I can as far as catching passes. I mean, that's what I'm here to do. Make plays. And that's what I want to do."

But with the 49ers 2-3 and riding a two-game losing streak, Davis is averaging just one catch through five games. That's a staggering figure for a player drafted with the No. 6 overall selection of the 2006 draft who became the highest-paid tight end in league history when he signed with the 49ers that year.

After displaying glimpses of big-play potential during his first two pro seasons, Davis so far this year has had to be content spending more time blocking in protection rather than running routes when the 49ers attempt to pass.

Quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan has been sacked a NFL-high 20 times, and San Francisco often has needed to keep in Davis as an extra blocker. He already is considered one of the league's better blocking tight ends.

But when Davis does go out for a pass, he often attracts a lot of attention. That's another reason he hasn't seen many throws coming his way.

Attempting to take advantage of his 4.38-second speed in the 40-yard dash – an all-time record for tight ends at the NFL Combine in 2006 – the 49ers threw deep down the middle to Davis several times during a 31-13 victory over Detroit last month. None of the passes connected, but opponents apparently got the message.

"Since that Detroit game, people have made a real effort now to make sure they don't want him down the field," Martz said. "Even though he may not be getting the ball, he's a huge factor in what we do. He's got guys carrying him all the way up the field now. That has really helped us in some other areas."

But it hasn't helped unleash a player who entered the NFL amid expectations he would become one of the league's next great pass-catching tight ends.

On the day Davis was drafted, 49ers coach Mike Nolan said, "We felt we not only got the best tight end in the draft, but we got the best wide receiver in the draft."

Davis, however, had only 20 receptions during an injury-plagued rookie season. He had a career-high 52 receptions last year for the NFL's worst offense – just one catch off the team lead – but the 49ers failed to take advantage of Davis' deep speed and he averaged just 9.8 yards a catch.

Now the 49ers are failing to take full advantage of Davis' receiving skills, though he currently ranks third in the league among tight ends with his 17.4-yard average per catch.

Davis said the 49ers are seeing different coverages from opponents on Sundays than they prepared for during the week. And Nolan suggested Davis still is refining his route-running ability.

"He has a responsibility to himself to run the correct routes," Nolan said. "You get the ball that way better. He's doing an outstanding job blocking, both pass and run. He is good at two of three. So, that leaves the third part. In order to utilize your exceptional speed, it's better with the ball in your hands than it's not."

Martz said there still is a learning curve for Davis in his offensive system and that the third-year tight end is making progress. Martz said, "I'm excited about where he is right now," and that Davis will continue to be more incorporated in the attack as the offense develops and the season moves on.

And, while Davis is frustrated he hasn't been used more as a receiver, he remains patient and believes there still is plenty of time for that to change.

"Whether I'm not catching a lot of passes right now, you just have to be patient and your time will come," Davis said. "We've definitely still got time. We've got plenty of games left to make it happen."

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