Losing Davis could add something to SF attack

Losing Vernon Davis for a month isn't the worst thing to happen to the 49ers' burgeoning offensive attack. In fact, it might even give it a boost. That's no knock on Davis, whose speed, power and athleticism aren't easy to replace. But his absence brings to the forefront another weapon that can do a different kind of damage in his stead, not to mention a rookie eager to make his first NFL impact.

Davis is the complete package at tight end, but the No. 6 overall pick in this year's NFL draft still is developing as a route-runner and pass-catcher at the position.

Those are skills Eric Johnson already has down.

"I can say I definitely bring experience to the table, and I think I've learned how to fit into holes in the defense and kind of try to feel what the quarterback feels," Johnson said this week. "That's my strength. I think I have great hands and a good feel for finding the hole and exploiting the defense."

That much became obvious during last week's 38-24 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, particularly after Davis went down with a fractured right fibula late in the third quarter.

With Johnson taking over Davis' role as the primary tight end, Johnson had four receptions in the game's final 13 minutes, including a 26-yarder and a 15-yard touchown reception that provided the 49ers with their final points.

That late spree gave Johnson a game-high seven receptions for 87 yards as quarterback Alex Smith quickly began developing a rapport with the sixth-year veteran who knows all about what it means to be a top target in San Francisco's passing game.

Johnson led the 49ers with 82 receptions in 2004, setting a franchise record for most receptions by a tight end in the process. But he missed the entire 2005 season with a foot injury, then watched helplessly as the Niners drafted the much-heralded Davis early in the first round to become an offensive fixture for both the present and future.

Johnson worked hard during the offseason and training camp, showing San Francisco coaches his commitment, veteran skill and receiving prowess. It looked as though the 49ers would make thorough use of both Davis and Johnson in their offense, with the two of them often on the field at the same time in two-tight end formations.

But Johnson played just 27 snaps in San Francisco's first two games, catching just one pass for two yards. He was essentially a non-factor.

"It's definitely been an interesting situation that I was in this year," Johnson said. "Obviously, there are a lot of facets involved, so I just tried to stay out of it and let the coaches make their decisions. I really have made a conscious effort just to be a team guy and just handle my business and focus on getting myself better, so that if an opportunity arises, I'll be ready and I can help the team however they need me."

Johnson was ready when that situation arose against the Eagles, but he already had been worked back into the attack before Davis' injury, catching three passes in the game to that point.

That was by design, because Davis has struggled as a receiving target since his auspicious debut, when the rookie turned his first career reception into a 31-yard touchdown play in the season opener.

Davis finished that game with five receptions for 37 yards, but he has not caught a pass since, missing opportunities for big plays in both Week 2 and Week 3 when he couldn't bring down Smith passes while attempting to use one hand instead of two.

While Davis is a physical phenomenon who contributes to the offense with his blocking, speed and just the threat his presence presents on the field, Johnson can contribute more as a receiving target at this point with his sure hands, polished route running and ability to find seams in the opposing secondary.

"He can't stretch (the field) like Vernon, but he can stretch it," Niners coach Mike Nolan said. "Eric has put in a lot of hard work and effort, and it paid off very well for him in (last week's) game."

And it figures to do so much more as the season moves forward, beginning Sunday when the 49ers play the Kansas City Chiefs at noisy Arrowhead Stadium.

With opposing defenses having to respect San Francisco's running game, receiver Antonio Bryant and the speed the 49ers have at the wideout positions, there is open room in the middle for a seasoned tight end who knows the secrets of maneuvering in those areas.

And, while Smith has looked to Bryant as his No. 1 downfield option this season, he now has another seasoned receiving weapon who he can go to and rely upon.

"Eric's a good player," Smith said. "He's a tremendously calm player, has great hands, strong hands, and he can get strong catches over the middle. He's a great technician running routes, and with his body language, he's an easy guy to read from a quarterback's perspective."

Johnson might not be the only receiving target Smith will be seeing more of this week. Rookie tight end Delanie Walker - the team's sixth-round draft pick who was so impressive during the preseason - will make his pro debut against the Chiefs after missing San Francisco's first three games with a dislocated shoulder.

While Walker will be worked into the attack gradually and might not see much time in the offensive plan this week, there's a chance that process will be accelerated by Davis' absence.

And, as he displayed throughout training camp and the preseason, Walker can be an exciting offensive weapon in his own right.

"I know I'm coming off an injury and they're not going to throw me out there right away," Walker said. "But I'm fine and feel I can go out there and play right away. Hopefully, things work out so I can do that. I just want to get on the field and make plays for the 49ers. I've just been waiting on this day and this opportunity."

So has Johnson. Now that opportunity is here for both of them, which sounds much more like a good thing than a bad thing for the San Francisco offense.

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