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Injuries should finally get Dontae Johnson back in 49ers starting lineup

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Cornerback Dontae Johnson gets a second chance to make an impression, as injuries likely will move him into the San Francisco 49ers starting lineup. We break down what it means.

The San Francisco 49ers have serious injury issues in Week 9, with their cornerbacks and running backs both expected to miss key performers. The running backs are entirely clear, with Carlos Hyde and Mike Davis ruled OUT for the Falcons game. However, the cornerback position is a little bit less clear. Tramaine Brock (shin), Kenneth Acker (concussion), and Keith Reaser (ankle) are all listed as questionable. The 49ers promoted Marcus Cromartie and Chris Davis to the 53-man roster on Saturday, which indicates two of those three might not play on Sunday.

One player who stands to benefit from all the injuries is Dontae Johnson. The 49ers drafted Johnson in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL Draft, and he saw significant playing time as a rookie. In year two, he saw some decent playing time early on, getting 20, 19 and 20 defensive snaps the first three weeks. However, after a Week 3 performance that was arguably his best of the season, Johnson stopped getting defensive snaps. In Weeks 4-7, Johnson played exclusively on special teams. This past week, he got 10 defensive snaps following injuries to Kenneth Acker and Keith Reaser.

Eric Mangini was asked why Johnson was not getting as much playing time for stretches of this season. Mangini's response:

"Well, he's playing more now and he'll continue to play more. And sometimes it's with Keith's role where he was playing in different packages, he was a good fit for that role that week against that group of wide receivers and the way that it was playing out. With Dontae, he's done a lot of good things, but Ken has done a lot of good things as well and that's why he got the opportunity that he did and then since he's been playing he's continued to grow. But, it's not an unhappiness with what Dontae's doing. I thought he did a really nice job last week in the reps that he got a chance to play in. That was a different role than he had been playing. Really that was Jaquiski's role that was Eric Reid's role and he fit in there. And, at any point his role could increase dramatically. It could increase dramatically this week and he'll get another opportunity to make a case for himself."

This does not really explain what happened with Johnson. Jimmie Ward saw significant boosts in playing time in the weeks Johnson was inactive, and Keith Reaser started to get a handful of snaps. Ward dealt with foot problems heading into training camp, so it is possible his return to 100 percent health, conditioning and generally readiness coincided with that.

Whatever the case, Johnson gets a second chance to make an impression. The 49ers face a Falcons passing attack that is missing Leonard Hankerson, but is probably in adequate shape with Julio Jones and Roddy White. If Brock is active, I would think he gets most of the time on Jones. However, Johnson is the biggest of the 49ers corners, so that could lead to him getting a chance against one of the best pass catchers in the league.