Niners TE Davis could miss two weeks with sprained knee

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Just when Vernon Davis finally became a key part of the San Francisco 49ers' offense, the tight end is headed back to the sideline.

Davis probably will miss the 49ers' next two games with a sprained ligament in his right knee after getting hurt during San Francisco's 37-16 loss at Pittsburgh. Last year's No. 6 overall draft pick caught four passes for 56 yards against the Steelers just a few days after asking coach Mike Nolan how he could be more involved in the Niners' struggling offense.

The athletic tight end appeared headed for a breakout season this summer after missing six games of his rookie campaign with a broken right leg. Instead, he has just eight catches for 83 yards -- and now he's probably out through San Francisco's bye week in early October.

That didn't stop Davis from studying at the 49ers' training complex late Sunday night after the team's cross-country flight from its first loss of the season. Davis watched the entire game on film before heading to bed.

"If we lose a game, I'll come in here and see the things that went wrong," said Davis, whose broken leg last season was the first injury of his football life. "I'll critique myself a little bit, especially. I'm in no rush to get home."

Davis was hurt on a play that might have turned Sunday's game in the Steelers' favor in the third quarter. With the 49ers down by 11 points, Davis leaped to make a 22-yard catch at the Pittsburgh 10, but dropped the ball while hitting the ground on a hit by safety Troy Polamalu.

The Steelers claimed they recovered a fumble, while the 49ers were sure Davis had made a clean catch. The officials ruled an incomplete pass and infuriated 49ers coach Mike Nolan, who described it Monday as "the turning point in the game."

"(But) excuses are for losers," Nolan said. "They make it OK to lose, and that's not why we're here."

The 49ers asked the league for clarification of referee Gerry Austin's ruling on the play, but didn't get any response that made them feel better.

"The officials didn't cost us the game," Nolan said. "However, in the NFL, coaches and players are held accountable to a very high standard ... and I believe that criticism makes us better. I'm suggesting we hold everyone accountable to the same standards, because it's not a job for everyone."

San Francisco lost Davis on the play, and got just a field goal from the drive. The 49ers then quickly allowed 13 straight points, ending a fairly encouraging day in disappointing fashion.

Though the Niners figured they probably weren't as good as their 2-0 record suggested, they know they're better than the club that struggled through the final minutes in Pittsburgh.

"There's definitely some positives," said Alex Smith, who went 17-of-35 for 209 yards with a TD pass and an interception that was returned for a score. "Decision making, playmaking, I felt better this week than I did the last couple."

San Francisco's defense has been solid, allowing just one touchdown drive longer than 50 yards by the Steelers. The Niners' biggest concern is their inability to run the ball this season after Frank Gore racked up 1,695 yards last year behind a tough offensive line.

Gore has just 175 yards after three games, though his once-broken right hand appears to be fine following a routine postgame examination Sunday.

The Pro Bowl running back has the same blockers for the second straight season except for rookie right tackle Joe Staley, who replaced Kwame Harris. But defenses have exploited Smith and the mediocre receiving corps by stacking eight or nine defenders against the run, daring Smith to beat them with passes.

"I know we're really close on a lot of things," center Eric Heitmann said. "When you watch film, we're really close to running the ball well. Guys are getting a lot of movement up front. We're seeing good things everywhere on the offense, and we're going to fix it. We know we're capable of running the ball."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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