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49ers using a lot of targets in passing game

Associated Press

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) – The San Francisco 49ers aren’t putting up big passing stats this season. The one number that does stand out when they throw the ball? The amount of receivers getting involved.

Tight end Delanie Walker caught a career-high six passes during last week’s 27-20 victory over the New York Giants, becoming the fifth different player in San Francisco’s nine games this season to lead the team in receptions.

The 49ers rank 29th in the NFL in passing offense and don’t have a player ranked higher than 44th among the league leaders in receptions. But the use of diverse targets has become a constant during the seven-game winning streak San Francisco takes into Sunday’s game against NFC West rival Arizona.

“Our passing game numbers don’t just jump up at you and slap you in the face,” Walker said Friday. “But we get the job done. That’s why you see what our record is today – a lot of people touching the ball and then having opportunities to make plays.”

The 49ers (8-1) have relied this season on a strong rushing attack led by two-time Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore and have been conservative in the passing game with quarterback Alex Smith, who has been efficient but not prolific. Smith’s passer rating of 97.3 ranks seventh in the NFL, but he ranks just 23rd in the league in both completions and passing yards.

With Gore battling injuries and being limited to zero yards rushing for the first time in his career, the 49ers were forced to rely more on passing against the Giants. That had been the plan entering the game, anyway.

Smith spread the ball around as eight San Francisco players finished with at least one catch. The 49ers have tried to get all of their pass catchers involved, and first-year coach Jim Harbaugh said the team doesn’t have a go-to receiver this year.

“They all are,” Harbaugh said. “That’s how we look at it. We have talented players at multiple positions and they know how to get open and catch the rock, and then know what to do with it after they catch it.”

Tight end Vernon Davis and wide receivers Michael Crabtree, Josh Morgan and Ted Ginn Jr. also have led the 49ers in receptions this year, and rookie running backs Kendall Hunter and Bruce Miller have joined Gore as options out of the backfield.

The 49ers have been working wideout Braylon Edwards, who missed four games with a knee injury, back into the starting lineup. They have even completed passes this season to left tackle Joe Staley on a tackle-eligible play and 330-pound nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga, who occasionally lines up with the offense at fullback in coordinator Greg Roman’s system.

“Every week we change it up,” Walker said. “Defenses and D-coordinators are trying to figure out what we’re doing. We can go to everybody. And that’s a big part of what’s helping Alex out in G-Ro’s offense. Nobody’s a decoy. Everyone’s live, and anyone can get the ball. We’re not running guys off. Everybody’s trying to get open.”

Davis last year became the first tight end in franchise history to lead the 49ers in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns in two consecutive seasons. Davis tops the 49ers this year with 34 receptions, but he has seen constant double coverage from opponents, which has affected his numbers.

Crabtree, who missed one game with a foot injury, has 31 catches. No other San Francisco player has more than 19 receptions, but the team has seven players with 10 or more.

“This is the most attention I’ve ever gotten in my life,” said Davis, who had 56 receptions last year and a career-high 78 during his Pro Bowl season of 2009. “They try to get me the ball, but I can’t help it if I’ve got a lot of people on me. But it’s helping out the team and working out in other ways, and it’s setting up things for others.”

Davis and the versatile Walker have combined for seven of San Francisco’s 11 touchdown receptions. They have created such problems for opposing defenses in two-tight end formations that now even Walker is seeing double coverage in some sets.

That happened last week, allowing Davis to get wide open on a short crossing pattern early in the fourth quarter for a catch he turned into a 31-yard scoring play that put San Francisco ahead to stay.

“You saw what happened when they focused on Delanie. I got open underneath and I scored,” Davis said. “When they’re on me, then Delanie’s getting open, and if they keep looking to me, a lot of other guys can get open. So there’s no way they can really stop us.”