San Francisco 49ers

Report: 49ers linebacker Willis likely to miss game against Denver

San Francisco 49ers inside linebacker Patrick Willis (52) jubilates to fans after the 49ers 26-21 win over the Philadelphia Eagles in a game at Levi's Stadium Sunday September 28, 2014 in Santa Clara.
San Francisco 49ers inside linebacker Patrick Willis (52) jubilates to fans after the 49ers 26-21 win over the Philadelphia Eagles in a game at Levi's Stadium Sunday September 28, 2014 in Santa Clara. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Patrick Willis’ left big toe will likely keep him out of Sunday’s showdown with Peyton Manning and the Broncos, the website Pro Football Talk reported Tuesday in citing a league source.

The 49ers linebacker sprained a toe ligament – an injury known as “turf toe” – late in the second quarter of Monday’s 31-17 victory over the St. Louis Rams and did not return to the game.

Rookie Chris Borland took over at the “Mike” linebacker spot and played well. Borland, who had two tackles and defended two passes in the second half, likely will start next to Michael Wilhoite on Sunday in Denver.

Willis had a walking boot on his left foot following Monday’s game and he had an MRI on Tuesday.

Turf toe injuries can linger, especially if players try to return to the field too soon.

Defensive end Quinton Dial suffered the injury while at Alabama, continued to play on it, then had to have surgery in the offseason. He missed the offseason of his rookie year with the 49ers while recovering. Another defensive starter, cornerback Tramaine Brock, suffered turf toe in Week 1. He has not played since and is unlikely to return until after next week’s bye.

Josh Johnson back, again – The 49ers continued their game of musical roster spots by cutting special-teams player Ray Ventrone and re-signing quarterback Josh Johnson, who was released late last week to make room for Ventrone.

Johnson already has been cut twice this season.

The maneuver allows the 49ers to go through most of the week of practice in preparation for Sunday’s game with three quarterbacks, with Johnson presumably as the scout-team passer.

Asked last week if Johnson would be back, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said, “Yes, he’s a 49ers quarterback.”

As the team’s No. 3 quarterback, Johnson is unlikely to be active for games. On the other hand, a veteran like Ventrone, who has no role on defense, does not require a full week of practice to be valuable on game days as a coverage specialist.

There is only some risk of another team signing Johnson. Because he’s been cut late in the week, he gets that week’s game check and thus remains loyal to the 49ers. And as a vested veteran, he is not subject to waivers. However, that roster trick will not be available to the 49ers after the Oct. 28 trade deadline when veterans like Johnson would be subject to waivers.

The 49ers also are expected to add a number of players to the active roster in the next month and a half, including Aldon Smith, NaVorro Bowman, Glenn Dorsey and Marcus Lattimore. When they do that, players will have to be removed from the roster.

At that point, Johnson will be a prime candidate to be cut, perhaps for more than a few days.

Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.

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