49ers Make Quick Change in Secondary Before Falcons Game: Report

Dontae Johnson

Getty Dontae Johnson celebrates recovering a fumble against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, December 5.

One practice was all Dontae Johnson needed to return to the San Francisco 49ers defensive plans.

And it was enough for the ‘Niners to insert him back to the starting defense before the Atlanta Falcons come to the Bay Area.

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Johnson, who missed the Sunday, December 12 road win over the Cincinnati Bengals due to a personal matter, was rewarded his starting position back in his first practice back with S.F. on Friday, December 17 via a report from The Athletic’s David Lombardi.

Johnson Replacing Rookie Cornerback who Became Sudden Starter

Johnson was originally penciled in to start in the absence of top lockdown cornerback Emmanuel Moseley, who is currently sidelined with a high ankle sprain.

A family tragedy, however, prevented the 30-year-old veteran from being with the 49ers in Cincinnati: The death of his mother.

Johnson’s mom passed from heart failure on the morning of the Bengals’ game, via 49ers team reporter Keiana Martin.

Head coach Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers learned of her passing following the 26-23 overtime win over the Bengals.

Again, Johnson’s return on Friday signified the strong chance of him being on the first team defense at Levi’s Stadium for the crucial NFC showdown between aspiring wildcard contenders.

Another reason for the inevitability of Johnson regaining the starting spot he was lined up to have for the Bengals game? An injury to the man who ended up replacing him: Rookie Ambry Thomas.

“Dontae Johnson was back for today’s practice. My guess is that he and Josh Norman start at cornerback Sunday. Ambry Thomas (concussion program but practicing) and Deommodore Lenoir are the other options,” was what Matt Barrows of The Athletic tweeted on Friday.

49ers Pleased With how Rookie Performed

Despite the circumstances he faced in being inserted late, plus despite the fact he surrendered a late touchdown that tied the game, one 49er coach was generally pleased with how Thomas handled himself.

That was defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans, who told reporters on Thursday, December 16 that Thomas looked encouraging.

“I thought Ambry had some encouraging snaps out there and it was his first time with that much action in the NFL,” Ryans said. “For his first game, I thought he did some good things, he did some encouraging things and it’s a lot for him to grow from, a lot for him to learn from as well, with him being out there as much as he did. And one thing I liked about Ambry, he didn’t blink.”

Shanahan said on Friday that Thomas is currently questionable as he’s in concussion protocol. The 49ers’ secondary will soon take on the league’s 17th ranked offense in passing yardage (2,929) and sits at 20th overall in passing touchdowns (17). The Falcons, though, do have NFL Rookie of the Year candidate Kyle Pitts at tight end who leads the team in catches and yardage plus brings versatile Cordarrelle Patterson — who has been labeled the Deebo Samuel of Atlanta and has 1,066 yards from scrimmage.

As for Johnson, Shanahan gets a needed veteran presence back for a contest featuring two teams battling for a final wildcard spot. Shanahan got asked: Does he have to kind of see where Johnson is or has he already done that?

“No, totally. Yeah, he’s obviously just a week out from it and the grieving process takes a long time, so it was good to get him out there today. I think it was the first step,” Shanahan said. “And we’ll continue to talk to him throughout the weekend.”

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