One can’t help but wonder if the Week 10 meeting been the 49ers and Panthers would have been any different had Vernon Davis not left midway through the second quarter when he was concussed by strong safety Mike Mitchell after running a flat route on a swap boot play-action pass. It was only his second target that game, his lowest of any game this season.
But nine weeks later, the Carolina Panthers and San Francisco 49ers are set to square off again, and Davis will be a critical factor in the game. He’s fresh off a two-catch game, but on seven targets. That high volume of targets has become the norm for him, having been targeted at least five times in all but two games since his injury, according to Pro Football Focus. We can expect to see him get a similar amount this game if he can escape the absurd athleticism and crafty coverage of linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis.
Both Kuechly and Davis are very athletic, aggressive, and they always patrol the middle of the field like few others can in the league. They’re extremely adept in zone coverage and it showed during the last meeting between the two teams when the two linebackers bottled Davis with seam and hook coverage in the defense’s Cover 2 and 3 concepts.
Contrary to criticism, the Cover 2 is not yet dead in the NFL. It still has its place in matchups such as these, where short passes are forced against a potent offense that has playmakers like Davis. It forces the quarterback to slip the ball in through pocket sized holes and simultaneo. It’s not easy, hence why the Panthers use it to safeguard the seam.
As for Cover 3, although some will argue against it until they’ve changed color because of it’s vast holes in coverage, it can still be used effectively because it loads the underneath area where spread passing teams have begun to use more extensively.
In the aforementioned meeting, the Panthers used Cover 2 and 3 on numerous occasions, two of which catch the watcher’s eye. The first time came with more than a minute left in the first quarter, when the 49ers had the ball on their own 24-yard line with a 3-0 lead.
It was 3rd-and-10, and barring a leggy scramble from Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers had to pass if they wanted to move the chains. The Panthers knew this and prepared properly, sitting deep with a two safety shell and their star linebacker, Kuechly, aligned deep and his body turned to the formation’s strength as it was most likely that a player would threaten the seam from that side. This appeared to be Cover 2, with Kuechly facing the No. 3 threat, which was Davis aligned from a flex position three yards from the end man on the line of scrimmage.
When the play began, the coverage appeared to be Cover 2, but instead the Panthers were disguising Cover 3. The cornerbacks loosened their cushion and both safeties rotated. The weak safety walked down to defend the flat while the strong safety rotated to the center of the hashes.
Davis, meanwhile, ran vertically outside the left hash, passing by an open-hipped Kuechly and settling down between the linebacker and a flat defender. He had nowhere to go to get open and as a result, Kaepernick was forced to scramble for a five-yard gain before the rangy Kuechly took him down. An end zone view of the play shows the little breathing room Davis had as he stood behind Kuechly’s coverage.
Less than a minute later, the 49ers faced 1st-and-10 and the Panthers’ Cover 2. After initially lining up in a heavy set with a single receiver flanked to the formation’s right, the 49ers shifted fullback Bruce Miller to the left flank, forcing the Panthers to shift from their single-high shell to two-deep. That meant Cover 2, and Davis was matched up with a combination of Thomas Davis and Kuechly.
Vernon was lined up at the end of the trenches in a three-point stance like he was run blocking, and Thomas was lined up slightly inside and five yards in front.
At the start of the play, Vernon released outside and ran downfield with both Thomas and Kuechly focusing their eyes on him. Vernon ran a bend route well outside the right hash, which was rendered useless when Thomas stayed inside and passed the tight end off to Kuechly, who ran the seam.
It’s vital for the Panthers to control the middle of the field and prevent the 49ers from invading it with big passing plays. If the 49ers are able to control the middle, they’ll delve deeper into their playbook and work in the play action pass. At one point before Davis’ injury, the 49ers left points on the board when they didn’t take advantage of a would-be critical mistake by Kuechly on a play action call.
Still leading by a mere three points, the 49ers had the ball on the Panthers’ 27-yard line only 15 seconds into the second quarter. Davis lined up at the end of the formation’s right, while Kuechly was five yards from the center and Thomas Davis was over the right shoulder of Vernon in a two-point stance.
Then Vernon released off the line and inside, taking on the brunt of Thomas’ jam before being let go freely into the middle of the field where Kuechly was supposed to be — only he wasn’t there. Kuechly, rather, bit hard on the play action and was nowhere near where he was supposed to be. Kaepernick failed to take advantage, however, choosing to inaccurately throw to wide receiver Mario Manningham on a comeback route. An opportunity missed.
The Panthers will have to be crisp in their coverage assignments this weekend when dealing with Vernon Davis. He’s a very explosive athlete who can certainly hurt the opposition in the seam, as well as in other areas of the field (corner/flag routes, for instance).
For the Panthers to win this weekend, stopping Davis with their two star linebackers will have to be top priority. Otherwise, they can kiss their Super Bowl aspirations goodbye.