Updated: September 18th, 2012 1:04pm
Scouting Report: Vernon Davis a matchup nightmare for Vikings' zones

Scouting Report: Vernon Davis a matchup nightmare for Vikings' zones

by Sam Monson
Special to 1500ESPN.com
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The Minnesota Vikings return home on Sunday to face unbeaten San Francisco at the Metrodome. Sam Monson of ProFootballFocus.com, which breaks down tape from every NFL game, takes an inside look at the 49ers in his weekly scouting report:


The 49ers run one of the more interesting offenses in the NFL. It isn't as high-octane as others in the league, but it can do a bit of everything, and is tough to defend because of its balance and lack of tendencies. Players such as TE Vernon Davis give them the ability to run with a heavy set or send an extra receiver deep without changing personnel.

The improvement in QB Alex Smith has come largely because most plays now have a built-in check-down option for him, rather than relying on his ability to find his check-down when the play breaks down. One of the patterns in any play is usually a short outlet designed to reduce Smith's poor decisions under pressure. They run with a power-blocking scheme up front and like to pull LG Mike Iupati, who can really clear a hole with a head of steam.

On defense, the 49ers are a 3-4 in name, but in reality will quickly jump to a 4-2-5 look in their nickel package. That personnel grouping might be even better than their base because it kicks DE Justin Smith in to the three-technique position, where he can wreak havoc. In two games, NT Isaac Sopoaga has played just 15 snaps. They don't get too creative with coverages, largely because they don't need to, but they will give S Dashon Goldson license to roam a bit and use his impressive range to affect plays.

Key players

There may not be a better defensive player in football than Justin Smith, and one of the few players with a case to argue that plays right behind him in the shape of ILB Patrick Willis. These two anchor a defense that might be the best in the NFL right now, and they are far from alone. This side of the ball is loaded with talent, but these two are the stars. Smith is a nightmare for opposing offensive lines to deal with and he will likely overwhelm rookie LT Matt Kalil in the run game. Kalil has been a fine pass-protector but has already struggled run blocking against players not in Smith's league. Willis is a fine all-around linebacker and will make his presence felt both in the run game and against the pass.

The Vikings need to tighten up their coverages, and one player who will ensure they either do that or get beaten is Davis, a physical freak who can run a sub-4.4 40 despite checking in at over 250 pounds. The Vikings don't have anybody who can match up with him one-on-one, and so the only way to limit his success would be to suffocate the big tight end with tighter zones than they have been playing. The 49ers like to use Davis to attack deep. The Vikings blew a big play deep between zones last week against the Colts. Can they prevent Davis from getting another this week?

It's easy to concentrate on Willis and ignore the player beside him, but doing that would be costly, because ILB NaVorro Bowman might be every bit as good. The 49ers were trying to get him on the field while they still had Takeo Spikes playing because they knew how talented he was, but Spikes played so well they couldn't bench him. A year later and Spikes moved on to San Diego in free agency, Bowman became the starter. Since taking over, he has been an All-Pro caliber player and gives the 49ers easily the league's best inside linebacker pairing. Both players can flow sideline to sideline as well as drop into coverage or become a threat on the blitz. Their complete skill sets make them extremely difficult to account for.

PFF stats

• Last season, the 49ers led the league with just 61 missed tackles on defense. This year, they have 15 already through two games.

• WR Randy Moss may have made the 49ers roster, but he is far from their top receiver. He has played just 37 snaps so far, one fewer than No. 3 WR Kyle Williams.

• Moss has caught everything that has been thrown at him, though -- literally. He has been targeted five times and caught all five balls for 61 yards and a touchdown.

• Both 49ers offensive tackles currently rank in the top 10 in PFF's position rankings, with LT Joe Staley (third) and RT Anthony Davis (seventh) both enjoying fine starts to the year

• Alex Smith has only thrown the ball 20-plus yards in the air twice this season.

Sam Monson is an analyst for ProFootballFocus.com.
Email Sam | @PFF
In this story: Matt Kalil, Randy Moss