SANTA CLARA – Dontae Johnson fell down the 49ers’ depth chart this season to become the team’s No. 4 cornerback.
But Johnson and Marcus Cromartie, just up from the practice squad, were starters on Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons due to injuries to 49ers cornerbacks Tramaine Brock, Kenneth Acker and Keith Reaser.
Although Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan threw for 303 yards and receiver Julio Jones collected 10 receptions for 137 yards, it was Johnson who rose up for the play of the game.
Johnson, who stands 6 foot 2, made a leaping pass breakup of Ryan’s fade to the 6-3 Jones in the end zone from the 4-yard line with less than four minutes remaining. After the 49ers held on third down, the Falcons settled for a field goal to pull within 17-16. Atlanta never touched the ball again.
“It’s Julio Jones,” Johnson said. “He’s had an outstanding season thus far. So I just knew they were going to take a shot with their best player. And I just had to make sure I was ready for it, and I made a play when it presented itself. “
Johnson said he knew Jones was likely to run a fade route, while Roddy White on the other side would run a slant pattern.
“I played my technique sound,” Johnson said. “And was able to find the ball and make a play to prevent the touchdown.”
The 49ers got strong performances throughout from their secondary. Johnson and safety Jaquiski Tartt broke up two passes apiece. Cromartie had a team-high seven tackles, including two tackles for losses.
“They didn’t blink. (They) locked their jaw,” 49ers coach Jim Tomsula said. “Really proud of them. Proud of the way the guys fought. We had young guys that didn’t blink and worked hard. Our coaching staff this week, obviously with all these guys, a lot of work went into that. And, the way the players worked with the coaches, and the way that went.”
The 49ers’ run defense was outstanding, too. The 49ers held the NFL’s leading rusher, Devonta Freeman, to just 12 yards on 12 rushing attempts.
“Much credit goes out to that defense man,” Freeman said. “They have some great players over there. They have nice schemes, stop the run, and they just did their job. They did a hell-of-a job actually.”
Bowman had another good day, and appears to be working closer and closer to his pre-injury form as a three-time All-Pro linebacker.
“I think us playing with each other and going through adverse times helps us realize whatever happens we have to control what happens on defense,” Bowman said. “Going through all that, you’re either going backward or forward. The guys we have in are young but as long as they’re trying to get better and go forward, we’re going to get better to be able to play the run like we have in the past years.
“I think that was a good example of how hard we’re working and how many hours we’re putting in throughout the week to get it right. We showed that today.”