The San Francisco 49ers entered the 2013-14 season with what looked to be a strong group of receivers: Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, Mario Manningham, Kyle Williams and possibly even A.J. Jenkins. Rookie Quinton Patton might even contribute and all in all, Colin Kaepernick was poised to have a big year.
Then reality happened, and both Crabtree and Manningham were injured, Jenkins was confirmed to be a waste of a first-round pick and Williams continues to slum it out in the "is really good for two plays per game" category. Patton is injured and Kaepernick has, to this point, struggled.
Now the 49ers have ... Boldin, and that's about it, at least as far as the wide receiver position is concerned. Williams has played the second-highest number of snaps among 49ers wide receivers, and Marlon Moore comes in at over 60 snaps already this season. That's just not very confidence-inspiring.
But there's another player who can catch the football, and he made that clear in Week 6: tight end Vernon Davis. The Arizona Cardinals absolutely could not stop Davis, who hauled in eight receptions for 180 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including a 61-yarder.
Davis has 404 yards and six touchdowns on the season, trailing Boldin's 421 yards. Davis is a matchup nightmare, when the 49ers are using him properly. On Sunday, the Tennessee Titans will draw the tall task of covering Davis.
Last season, Davis admitted to facing more double coverage than he'd ever seen in his career. He had just 548 yards and five touchdowns over 16 games played, while Crabtree had his first 1,000-yard season as a breakout player.
Teams were ignoring Crabtree to make sure Davis was covered (not to mention the 49ers kept Davis in to block far too often), and that allowed Crabtree to flourish. On Sunday, the Cardinals paid an awful lot of attention to Boldin, who showed he is capable with a huge game against the Green Bay Packers earlier in the season. That cost them, as evidenced by Davis' stats.
Tennessee has to figure out how to stop both Boldin and Davis. Whichever one of those two is covered the least will be the first player Kaepernick looks at every single snap. It's an obvious offensive approach, but with Frank Gore and big guys like Alex Boone and Mike Iupati pushing the running game along, it's one that is working.
Tennessee's pass defense
The Titans are actually pretty solid at defending against tight ends this season. They are allowing an average of four receptions and 57 yards to a tight end through six games this season. In total, they've allowed 26 receptions for 346 yards and four touchdowns to tight ends this season.
Going further, the player who had the best game against them was Kellen Winslow of the New York Jets, who caught six passes for 73 yards in Week 4. Antonio Gates caught five passes for 55 yards and a touchdown the week before that.
Both Winslow and Gates have something in common: they're very athletic tight ends, much more so than the other tight ends the Titans have faced this season. Davis is more athletic than any of them. He's bigger, faster, stronger and younger than those two, and if there was a mismatch exploited that the Titans haven't caught on to, then he'll have a better game than either of them, too.
The Titans, though, have a strong overall passing defense. They allow 223.8 passing yards per game, which is good for No. 10 in the league. That has primarily been due to the strong play of corners Alterraun Verner and Jason McCourty.
Pro Football Focus ranks Verner as the top cornerback in the league through six games, and McCourty as No. 6. Verner earns an 11.2 overall rating, which comes from a 9.3 rating in pass coverage. To put this into context, Darrelle Revis is given a 10.7 overall rating and a 7.1 rating in pass coverage. The worst corner in the league is Cortland Finnegan, according to their overall rating of -15.1.
Receivers have a 34.4 percent catch rate against Verner, which forces teams to throw more at McCourty, who has seen 43 passes come to his side of the field, while only 32 have gone to Verner. Coty Sensabaugh has a negative rating, at -2.3, playing from the nickel spot.
So, who's on Davis?
We talked a lot about the two corners above because a cornerback might be what's required to stop Davis. But corners aren't the primary players the Titans usually put on tight ends. That falls to outside linebacker Zach Brown.
Brown is very athletic, but is probably better at rushing the passer than he is in coverage. He can keep up with the slower tight ends, but if a player like Davis makes a nice cut or runs an intricate route, Brown is lost. Gates' touchdown against the Titans was while he was covered by Brown.
He was particularly bad at this in his rookie season, but he's been a bit better in 2013-14. Still, Pro Football Focus has Brown No. 28 among outside linebackers overall, and gives him a -0.9 rating in pass coverage over the first six weeks. That ranks him No. 21 at his position in regard to pass defense.
But he has drawn plenty of difficult matchups this season. Still, Davis will be the most difficult yet, so what can the Titans do to help him out? Well, if they truly believe their cornerbacks are solid -- and they're right if they do -- then they will stick one of them on Boldin and put the other one on Davis, with Brown helping out occasionally.
They need only to look to what the New England Patriots did to Jimmy Graham this past week. They put Aqib Talib, and later Kyle Arrington, on Graham and held him without a catch for the whole game (Graham did exit in the fourth quarter with an injury). Boldin and Davis are the two real receiving threats on the 49ers' roster, and the Titans would be best served by getting one of their more dependable corners in there for a good portion of the time.