Niners notebook: Vernon's time to shine

Rookie Vernon Davis got back in the flow on offense last week during his first start in eight games, and as it turns out his return was just in time. Veteran Eric Johnson, who started in Davis' place at tight end, sprained a knee ligament in practice Wednesday and will miss 2-3 weeks with the injury, leaving Davis to step up and fill the void in the passing game.

When asked Thursday if Davis - who started the first three games and had five receptions in the season opener - knows the offense well enough to be a factor, coach Mike Nolan noted Davis was the tight end on the field for most of San Francisco's offensive plays in last week's 20-17 loss at St. Louis.

"Sure, without question," Nolan said. "I hope so. He had 45 snaps last week."

After starting seven games in Davis' place, Johnson played a complementary role against the Rams last week, taking part in just 17 plays to Davis' 40 snaps.

Johnson ranks fourth on the team in receptions behind starting receivers Arnaz Battle and Antonio Bryant and starting tailback Frank Gore. Johnson, who has become a steady outlet option for quarterback Alex Smith, has 32 receptions for 282 yards and is tied for second on the team with two touchdown receptions.

Johnson had three receptions for 17 yards against the Rams, including a one-yard scoring catch from Smith that gave San Francisco its first lead of the game at 14-13 late in the third quarter. Davis had one reception for 11 yards - his first catch since those five in the opener - and failed to bring in another catchable pass against the Rams.

Davis figures to see more throws coming his way on passing downs beginning this week. He spent a lot of time blocking against the Rams as the 49ers continued to have a strong showing on the ground for the third game in a row.

"You have to know it all," Nolan said. "Vernon's in the route. I don't know how many of that 45 snaps had been in a route, say it was a dozen, he had two thrown to him. We'll see how that goes."

Though Johnson figures to miss three games during which the 49ers will be attempting to remain in playoff contention, the 49ers don't immediately plan to put Johnson on injured reserve. The team also has second-year veteran Billy Bajema, who has starting experience from last year, and promising rookie Delanie Walker available to back up Davis.

When asked if Bajema, who has been seeing limited action, now could be getting more action in pass routes, Nolan said, "He might." When asked the same thing about Walker, Nolan responded, "He might, too."

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Johnson is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. Last week, Nolan said the club has entered into preliminary contract talks to get Johnson to re-sign with the club.

Johnson said he is interested in returning to the 49ers, but wanted to see how he would be used in conjunction with Davis the remainder of the season.

Now, those plans have been thwarted by the injury. Johnson's ability to stay healthy has been a consideration for the team, since he missed the entire 2003 season and entire 2005 season with injuries. In between those lost years, Johnson set a team record for tight ends with 82 receptions in 2004.

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Cornerback Walt Harris has been an extremely productive free-agent acquisition for the 49ers after the Redskins released him following last season. Harris is tied for the league-lead with six interceptions and has provided steady coverage on defense and a steady presence in the locker room.

"He has played very well," Nolan said. "I don't know how much recognition he'll get because we're not that team yet that draws a lot of attention to it. I don't know he'll get any national attention. But he's deserving of it (attention), as far as the level he's performed at."

Harris is tied for the NFL lead with six interceptions and also leads the 49ers with three forced fumbles. He had an interception nullified by a penalty and a forced fumble and 50-yard fumble return for a touchdown overturned by a replay challenge last week.

Harris played well while being matched up down-to-down on the Rams' Torry Holt, who caught just four of the nine passes directed at him for 30 yards. Harris was given added responsibility because Shawntae Spencer was out with an ankle injury.

"Over the years, I've responded well to responsibility," Harris said. "I take it seriously. I was very excited about it (matching up against Holt). Back in my younger days, if I'd been told that, I would've been nervous and afraid to fail."

Harris, an 11-year professional, was originally a first-round pick of the Chicago Bears in 1996.

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Linebacker Jeff Ulbrich, who plays in the 49ers' third-down package, said when he watches film of Saints running back Reggie Bush, he sees a player who reminds of him a young Marshall Faulk. He said Faulk had comparable speed to Bush earlier in his career.

"They use him in similar ways as a receiver," Ulbrich said.

So will there be times when he'll be asked to cover Bush?

"Maybe," Ulbrich said. "You never know."

Ulbrich struggled last week to keep up with Rams running back Steven Jackson on a couple plays in which the Rams exploited an Ulbrich-on-Jackson matchup.

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When the 49ers are looking for short-yardage gains, don't expect quarterback Alex Smith to lung over center. He said he has never done it in his high school, college or professional careers.

"I've never been a big leap-over guy at any level," he said. "In college, I never did one in the shotgun. I'd run around the edge or run a quarterback power. It's a fine line. You jump over and score a touchdown and you're a hero or you get that ball knocked out."

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Nolan said he did not challenge the officials' spot on a third-down run late in the game against the Rams because he figured he did not have a chance with referee Terry McAulay making the call on an interior play because of history.

Earlier in the game, Nolan was shocked that cornerback Walt Harris' 50-yard fumble return for a touchdown was overturned. McAulay ruled the pass was incomplete, overturning the initial call of a Torry Holt catch and fumble.

"If anything's disappointing, it's some of the reversal calls that we had last week with Arnaz (Battle) on the touchdown and the reversal (Sunday) with Walt Harris' play," Nolan said, "because the reversal is supposed to be clear-cut. And those were gray to me. But, again, that's my judgment versus theirs."

A week earlier, Battle's touchdown pass was spotted just short of the end zone after a replay challenge. The 49ers ended up settling for a field goal in their eventual 20-14 victory over the Seahawks.

Nolan talked about a ruling he challenged in the Sept. 24 game against the Eagles, on which Eagles defensive tackle Mike Patterson recovered a Frank Gore fumble at the goal line. Although it appeared as if a 49ers player touched Patterson while he had both knees on the ground, McAulay allowed the 98-yard fumble return for a touchdown.

"There was probably not a more blatant, obvious, he's-on-the-ground-ball's-down (play that was) not overturned," Nolan said. "So if you go by experience, I hate to say it, I don't know if they turn their head the other way when it's an interior (play) or whatever.

"It's the same crew, same situation (and) an interior (play), so you got to go on what you experience."

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Rookie Brandon Williams, drafted in the third round because of his punt-return skills, has not muffed a punt or fumbled in his eight games this season. But Williams was deactivated for the game, in favor of Taylor Jacobs, who saw just one snap on offense.

Battle was inserted to return punts for the first time in more than two months. Battle had surgery six days earlier to insert two screws into his broken left hand, and his fumble at the 49ers' 36 led to the Rams' first touchdown.

"He didn't drop the punt," Nolan said. "He got stripped when he was carrying the ball. All week long he was fine handling the ball. That (broken hand) wasn't my concern. That wasn't why he put the ball on the ground."

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The 49ers quietly signed fullback Moran Norris to a three-year contract extension through the 2009 season prior to last week's game. Norris came to the 49ers under a one-year contract.

Norris has been one of the keys to the 49ers' ability to run the ball effectively. He has developed a nice rapport with Frank Gore as his lead-blocker. Norris has caught just four passes for 4 yards and does not have a rushing attempt this season. One of his receptions went for a touchdown.

All they want from him is to continue doing the dirty work as the team's blocking back.

"It means a whole lot," Norris said. "It lets me know I'm a value to the team. I'm glad to able to get a deal with them. I like the franchise. I like the running backs and the coach, and I'm glad I'm going to be here."

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--- WR Arnaz Battle has 38 receptions this season, but he ranks tied for ninth in the league with 18 catches on third downs.
--- RB Frank Gore, the second-leading rusher in the league, is tops in the NFC and third in the NFL with 1,495 yards from scrimmage. Gore has gained 1,177 yards rushing and has 318 receiving yards.
--- QB Alex Smith ranks 10th in the league in third-down passing with a rating of 88.4. On third downs, Smith has six touchdowns and two interceptions.
--- CB Donald Strickland started the first 49ers game in which he suited up. After being inactive for three games, Strickland earned his way into the starting lineup last week against the Rams. If Shawntae Spencer is unable to play again this week, Strickland will likely draw another start. If Spencer plays, Strickland might take over for Sammy Davis as the team's third cornerback.
--- RG Justin Smiley is doing a good job of using his athleticism on the 49ers' bread-and-butter run play called "power counter." Smiley pulls to the left to throw a key block that is designed to open the way for RB Frank Gore. That play has resulted in big gains for the 49ers throughout the season.

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