Tough Against TEs, Packers Face Another Challenge In 49ers' Davis

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San Francisco 49ers TE Vernon Davis catches a pass against the Packers in a 2008 preseason game.

So far in 2009, the Green Bay Packers have managed to keep opposing tight ends from having a major impact on gameday.

But that task gets perhaps as difficult as it's been all season on Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers and Vernon Davis.

Davis, a fourth-year athletic freak whose 6-foot-3, 250-pound listing doesn't do him justice, is a player that Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers calls not only the fastest tight end in the NFL, but maybe the fastest pass-catcher in the 49ers' offensive arsenal.

This year Davis is having the kind of breakout season the 49ers envisioned when they drafted him with the No. 6 overall pick back in 2006. After two decent though unspectacular seasons, and then a rocky start last year under new coach Mike Singletary, Davis is now leading San Francisco with 45 receptions for 493 yards (11.0 avg.) and seven touchdowns.

He combines a ruggedness in traffic over the middle with breakaway speed on vertical routes, all of which makes him a significant matchup challenge.

"You don't have to look at much tape to see that he's just such a major part of their offense," Capers said. "They're making a real effort to get the ball to him. He's their leading receiver by 19 catches.

"He's a physical guy. You'll see DBs bounce off of him, so he's a talent. There's a reason why he was picked as high as he was."

Fortunately for the Packers, defending tight ends has been a strong suit in 2009, and it looks as though Capers will have one of his top options for that duty back on the field Sunday.

Linebacker Brandon Chillar, who broke his hand three weeks ago, has practiced all week with a club cast and is listed as probable on the injury report. How effective he can be in pass coverage with one hand clubbed up is uncertain, but he remains one alternative.

The other, and the top choice lately, is cornerback Charles Woodson, who has become Capers' most versatile defender. Woodson will line up anywhere on the field - as a corner on the outside or in the slot, or as a safety in the middle or up in the box - to keep opponents guessing whom he might be covering and if or when he'll blitz.

With Chillar out the past two games, Woodson was often matched up with Tampa Bay's Kellen Winslow and Dallas' Jason Witten, the top receiving threat for both teams, and successfully held them in check.

Winslow had four catches for 57 yards and one touchdown back on Nov. 8, but his TD came against zone coverage on a broken play. Witten finished last week's game with five catches for 47 yards, but he had just one catch for three yards until the score was 17-0 in the fourth quarter.

How Woodson, at 6-1 and 202 pounds, can defend playmakers who are physically so much larger - Winslow is 6-4, 240, while Witten is 6-5, 263 - is a testament to his experience and guile. He'll need the full complement of both attributes if he's charged with handling Davis again on Sunday.

"He's athletic and he's instinctive," Capers said. "Those guys, they understand body position. You want to try to do the opposite of what he's trying to do to you. I think Charles has a good feel for that."

What Woodson likes, though, is that he hasn't had to take the tight end every snap, only in certain packages that call for it. The Dallas game was the perfect example.

On one play in the fourth quarter, Woodson was blitzing from the slot and sacked quarterback Tony Romo, knocking the ball loose for a crucial turnover. But on the Cowboys' next drive, he picked up Witten down by the goal line and stepped in front of him to intercept a pass.

"To be able to move inside or move back to the safety in whatever situation, I think is the best way to use my ability, because at that point you can't hide from me," Woodson said. "I can mix it up, I can disguise, and I think I can be around that ball a lot more.

"I tell Dom whatever you've got for me, let me know, because I feel like you can put a lot on my plate."

The variety is good for Woodson and the defense as a whole, but he clearly understands the importance of the tight-end assignment anytime that call is made.

"If they can convince me it's going to help us win, I'm for it," Woodson said. "I thought the game plan last week was excellent. We'll have another good game plan this week, and we'll go out there and try to get another one."

Prior to the last two games, with Chillar and Woodson both healthy, the value of having two options to cover the tight end was evident.

{sportsad300}In the season's first seven contests, only one tight end had more than two receptions in a game against the Packers. That was Minnesota's Visanthe Shiancoe with three catches for 18 yards and a score back in Week 4 at the Metrodome. St. Louis' Daniel Fells had two TD catches the week before, but then was shut out in the second half.

Potentially mixing up the coverage assignments can only help against Davis, who will draw attention from the safeties as well because he's such a big-play weapon.

"We're going to have to have different ways that if we want to give added help there that we can," Capers said. "You can't do that exclusively, but there will be certain things that hopefully we can (do to) discourage him (from) getting the ball at times."

It's worth noting that Davis' impact has successfully been limited by a handful of teams this season. It's not fair to say every game has been feast or famine for Davis, but he has had three huge games that have accounted for the bulk of his impressive numbers.

In Week 3 at Minnesota, Davis had seven catches for 96 yards and two TDs. In Week 7 at Houston, he had seven grabs for 93 yards and three scores. And in Week 9 vs. Tennessee, he posted 10 catches for 102 yards, including a season-best 40-yarder.

Those three outings (27-291-5) equal roughly 60 percent of Davis' production in 2009, and the Packers would like to keep it that way.

"He's definitely someone that we have to take care of, especially in their four-vertical passing game," Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. "They are making a concerted effort to get him the football, so he is definitely one of our prime targets as we plan for them."

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