Go-to target emerging at TE

The 49ers haven't found a go-to receiver yet this season, but they sure have found a go-to tight end. Eric Johnson has emerged as a legitimate weapon in an offensive arsenal that has been sorely lacking in those types through the first quarter of the season.

Johnson, in fact, isn't just San Francisco's leading receiver with 28 catches for 298 yards. That figure puts him second in the NFL in receptions behind St. Louis wideout Isaac Bruce, the league leader with 32 catches.

The Niners lost three of their top pass-catchers from last year during the offseason when starting receivers Terrell Owens and Tai Streets and starting tight end Jed Weaver - who replaced an injured Johnson during the 2003 preseason - relocated with other teams. That trio combined for 162 receptions, with Weaver tying third receiver Cedrick Wilson for third on the team with 35 catches.

This year, the tight end has become the top target, and a lot of that has to do with how well Johnson is playing the position and getting himself open underneath opposing coverages.

When asked Wednesday whether Johnson has established himself as the team's go-to receiver, Niners coach Dennis Erickson didn't hesitate in his affirmation.

"Of course," Erickson said. "He's a guy that has made a lot of plays for us. It depends on what (opponents) want to do. If they are going to play zone against us, then he'll have his opportunities. He can find the zone really well. He can recognize coverages and break off backers. He's probably one of the better receivers at that position that I've been around."

That is, of course, because Johnson was a record-setting receiver in college at Yale before bulking up to move to tight end before he was drafted by the Niners in the seventh round of the 2001 draft. He moved quickly into the starting lineup and accounted for 76 receptions in his first two seasons.

With Erickson's arrival last season, Johnson was expecting to see more balls come his way and the tight end become a more integral part of San Francisco offense. But he never got that chance after complications with a broken collarbone forced him to miss the entire season.

He's getting that chance now.

"I feel better than any other year this year," Johnson said. "That comes with being comfortable with seeing the zones, having experience reading the zones and getting a feel for the field. I feel fast and I feel I'm definitely more comfortable running the routes. A lot of it has to do with the quarterback, too. Tim's been finding me and throwing some great balls. It's coming together a little bit between us."

Quarterback Tim Rattay found Johnson for a game-high 10 receptions for 113 yards in last week's loss to the Rams, the first time since 1996 that a San Francisco tight end has had more than 100 yards receiving in a game.

It also increased Johnson's team lead to nine catches over wideout Curtis Conway, the Niners' second-leading receiver. Conway and Cedrick Wilson both have shown some flashes, but neither has established himself as a consistent No. 1 receiving threat. Brandon Lloyd, ostensibly the team's No. 1 receiver entering the season, missed the past two games with a groin injury after recording just five receptions for 36 yards in San Francisco's first two games.

"They've been playing a little more two-tight end stuff this year," said Johnson, looking for ways to explain his propensity of receptions. He is, after all, on a pace for 112 receptions this year. "But then also, when we go to three receivers, they've been keeping me in as a fourth receiver rather than taking the tight end out and playing just a four-receiver set. Hopefully, the more I catch, the more it will open things up, and (opponents) will pay more attention to me and open it up for other guys."

Erickson expects that to start happening during Sunday's game against the Arizona Cardinals.

"Soon, you're going to see him doubled," Erickson said. "They've got to inside-out him and now we're going to be one-on-one outside, so we have to make plays out there."

Cardinals coach Dennis Green, a former 49ers assistant, says the Arizona defense certainly must keep track of Johnson.

"Absolutely," Green said. "I look at film and he reminds of Brent Jones. He can work his way open and obviously the quarterbacks look for him. When he gets against the zone, he's going to find an open area, get in an open area and then he has got excellent hands. He is a guy that can control the clock and control the first downs."

When asked if he felt Johnson might now be San Francisco's most dangerous offensive weapon, Green backed away from that idea, saying, "I don't know about that."

But then Green went on to talk about running back Kevan Barlow, without mentioning any of San Francisco's receivers in the conversation.

He didn't have to. Right now, on a struggling San Francisco offense, Johnson's numbers are doing all the talking.

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