SANTA CLARA A.J. Jenkins had a nice night Saturday. He came within a few feet of a spectacular night.
The 49ers' first-round pick out of Illinois twice blew through the Texans' coverage, showing the smoothness and speed team officials raved about the night they drafted him in April. Both deep passes from Josh Johnson, however, fell beyond the rookie's reach.
Johnson pointed to himself my fault after missing the first of the long balls, which, had it been on target, would have been a 41-yard touchdown.
"Obviously, you'd like to hit those," Johnson said Monday. "Those two balls, those explosive plays, could have changed the complexion of the game."
But in the exhibition season, even incompletions can be meaningful.
Johnson said the two deep attempts to Jenkins as well as deep incompletion from Alex Smith to Mario Manningham served as a signal to future opponents that the 49ers' ground-and-pound offense from a year ago has considerably more bells and whistles entering this season.
"If defenses are going to get up and pressure (receivers), you've got to hit those so that they know they're not going to be able to play people in the box all game," Johnson said. "We've got guys that can go get long balls. We've just got to give them a chance to go get 'em."
The formula for defending the 49ers in recent seasons has been basic: Stick as many defenders as possible along the line of scrimmage and stop Frank Gore and the running game.
The 49ers rarely made teams pay for the strategy. Last year, they had six pass plays of 40 or more yards in the regular season. Only three teams had fewer.
During the offseason, however, they added two deep threats, Randy Moss and Manningham, and used their top draft pick on another.
Johnson did hook up with Jenkins on his first attempt in the third quarter. Johnson said the rookie did a great job of "holding the red line," an imaginary line on the side of the field between receiver and sideline that gives the quarterback a few yards of cushion in which to place the ball.
Johnson lofted the pass into that zone, and Jenkins detached from the defensive back in time to make a 32-yard reception, the 49ers' longest in the exhibition season.
To that point, Jenkins' most prominent moment of the offseason had come when coach Jim Harbaugh made an impassioned defense of the rookie July 29.
Harbaugh blasted observers who had noted Jenkins' rough start during May and June practices, and he predicted Jenkins would become "an outstanding football player."
Jenkins admitted that until recently he had been trying too hard and swimming in the 49ers' playbook. But he has looked more comfortable and confident in recent practices, and he has been better in the games as well.
His most impressive feat so far may be that he has participated in every practice since arriving in early May.
The slightly built 192-pounder has run farther over the last four months than any other 49er. He gets more practice repetitions than his fellow rookie wideouts, all of whom went undrafted. He also has played more snaps 50 over the first two exhibition games than the other 49ers wideouts.
Jenkins said resilience has been his goal since his first practice, when Harbaugh criticized the rookies' conditioning. After all, Jenkins said, it's impossible to improve in practice when you're watching from the sideline with a hamstring strain.
"I want to come out here every day and work hard," he said. "Hopefully I won't get injured anytime soon, knock on wood. I'm trying to get better every day, have a good camp and make the nonbelievers believers."