In recent years, the role of the tight end in NFL offenses has grown exponentially. Once thought to be merely blockers with wide receiver numbers on their jerseys, it would seem that just about every team has at least one playmaking tight end. However, the San Francisco 49ers were ahead of the curve in that regard, drafting talented speedster Vernon Davis in 2006 and incorporating him into the offensive game plan long before it was the norm. Given the Vikings' question marks at linebacker heading into Sunday's game, the battle between Davis and linebacker Chad Greenway will be this week's key matchup.
The problems Davis can pose for opposing defenses are numerous. He's a strong in-line blocker who rarely leaves the field because, at 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, he can hold up against pass rushing defensive ends and blitzing linebackers, but that is only half the story with Davis.
"You don't see 250-pound guys with 4.4 speed that can do the types of things he does," safety Jamarca Sanford said. "He's one of those players that you have to account for on every play because he is always capable of doing something big."
Keeping track of Davis won't be easy. He lines up as an in-line tight end, as a standing slot receiver, outside the hash marks on some plays and is put in motion to create movement on the defense and get them out of their base pre-snap formation. The results have been impressive to say the least.
Over the last three seasons, Davis has caught more than 200 passes for 2,600 yards and 26 touchdowns and his role shows no sign of diminishing anytime soon. In his first two games this season, he has caught eight passes for 116 yards and three touchdowns and is averaging almost 15 yards per reception.
The anomaly that Davis brings is that he is viewed as being too big for a safety to single cover properly and two fast for a linebacker to chase down the field. Greenway may be the exception to that rule.
He has excellent speed for a linebacker and is a secure closing-speed tackler. With Erin Henderson out after suffering a concussion that caused him to miss practice all week, the onus of tracking Davis may well fall heavily on Greenway's shoulders.
With the offensive weapons the 49ers have – the running tandem of Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter and the receiver trio of Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham and Randy Moss – the one who could end up being the biggest difference-maker is Davis. The Vikings have the players to match up with the wide receivers and the pursuit speed to bottle up Gore and chase Hunter to the edge, but the one glaring area that few teams have been able to adequately match up with is containing Davis. It will have to be a play-by-play shared responsibility that will include linebackers, safeties, nickel corners and perhaps even having defensive end Jared Allen dropping back into coverage on some plays. But, for the most part, the player that should be asked to keep Davis in check is Greenway. Few teams have succeeded in shutting down Davis. The Vikings are the next in line to have that "opportunity."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Key matchup: Davis vs. Greenway
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