Of all the 49ers' injuries, Johnson's may hurt most
By Daniel Brown, Mercury News
Like so many of his 49ers teammates, tight end Eric Johnson is injured. Painful ribs prevented him from finishing practice Wednesday, and he trotted off the field to schedule an MRI exam.
Unlike so many of his teammates, however, Johnson expects to be fine by Sunday and said he would play against the Arizona Cardinals. The 49ers had better hope so: Johnson is the shiny piece in what is otherwise a junkyard of a season. He is having a terrific year, his best ever, leading the team with 28 catches for 298 yards.
Johnson ranks second in the NFC in receptions, trailing only the St. Louis Rams' Isaac Bruce (32).
"He reminds me of Brent Jones," Cardinals Coach Dennis Green said, referring to the 49ers' former four-time Pro Bowl tight end. "He can work his way open and, obviously, the quarterbacks look for him."
Against the St. Louis Rams last Sunday, Johnson had 10 catches for 113 yards. He became the first 49ers tight end to surpass 100 yards in a game since Ted Popson in 1996.
All the action, however, had a drawback. On his last catch of the night, with 43 seconds to play, Johnson took a shot from a Rams linebacker. "He missed my shoulder pads and hit me square in the ribs," Johnson said.
X-rays revealed no fracture, but Wednesday's first practice of the week proved too painful to endure. While getting loose with some push-ups, Johnson felt muscle spasms and headed for an MRI exam. Results will be announced today.
"I feel like I'll play," he said about two hours before the tests. "I just find out how to take care of it."
In the least, this injury is nothing compared to a year ago, when a fractured collarbone wiped out his season. The 49ers missed him: Jed Weaver filled in ably but was more of a blocking tight end than a receiving threat. Weaver made 35 catches, just seven more than Johnson has in four games.
With Johnson back, Tim Rattay has a player who can find the soft spots in a zone defense. Rattay said that when he needs to get rid of the ball in a hurry, Johnson is the master at getting open 8 to 10 yards downfield and looking back for the ball. "He turns and gives you his eyes so quickly," the quarterback said.
Johnson's yardage total is just 64 yards shy of his previous career high, and that total took him 16 games in 2001.
This year, Johnson has two more catches than each of the Indianapolis Colts' Marvin Harrison and the Philadelphia Eagles' Terrell Owens. He has 10 more than Tony Gonzalez, the Kansas City Chiefs' acclaimed tight end.
Such statistics are bound to start drawing more defensive attention, and Johnson said he expects defensive coordinators to start applying more double coverages.
But when the Cardinals rely on a zone defense this weekend, "then Eric will have his opportunities," 49ers Coach Dennis Erickson said. "He can find the open spot in the zone really well. He can recognize coverages and break off linebackers. He's probably one of the better receivers at that position that I've been around."
Johnson is fast and fluid on the field. He credits his smoothness in part to yoga, which he took up about a year and a half ago to supplement his weightlifting routine. He said yoga helped him with his flexibility, speed, strength -- and mindset. "If there's stress during the season, it helps calm the nerves," he said.
Johnson occasionally breaks out a yoga pose during his pre-practice stretching, perhaps the plank position (push-ups) or warrior position (open hips). He does not mind the ribbing he gets from skeptical teammates.
The ribbing he got from the Rams, however, might keep him off the field another day or two. Still, he vowed to be back on Sunday. Doing so might help him toward becoming the first tight end to lead the 49ers in receiving since Ted Kwalick had 47 catches for 729 yards in 1973.
That much action for a tight end is rare under Erickson, who traditionally prides his offenses on downfield passes. He said a tight end led his team in receptions only once, in 1984, when he was in Idaho.
"I think our tight end caught 80 passes that year," Erickson said. "He still sends me thank-you notes."
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