San Francisco 49ers

Person of interest: Stevie Johnson gives 49ers a new wrinkle vs. Seahawks

Stevie Johnson is the 49ers’ third-leading receiver, and perhaps more notable, is one of the few NFL wideouts to have a big game against Seattle’s Richard Sherman.
Stevie Johnson is the 49ers’ third-leading receiver, and perhaps more notable, is one of the few NFL wideouts to have a big game against Seattle’s Richard Sherman. The Bee

Seattle safety Kam Chancellor chose “crafty” to describe 49ers wide receiver Stevie Johnson. San Francisco offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s adjective was “unique,” and quarterback Colin Kaepernick went with “unorthodox.”

Jim Harbaugh? Asked what sets Johnson apart from other wide receivers, the 49ers coach didn’t even use words. Instead he stood at the podium and shimmied his shoulders and bobbed his head for about five seconds, meant to depict a wide receiver about to cut up field against a defensive back.

Anyone who walked in late may have thought a bumblebee had flown down the back of Harbaugh’s polar fleece.

“I think a picture is worth a thousand words there,” he finally said. “It’s tough for me to really describe it as well. So I’ll leave it up to you to transcribe it. Just when I see it, that’s what I see. (He’s) probably a good dancer.”

Johnson has an unconventional style, and that’s what makes him such an intriguing weapon in Thursday’s crucial game against the archrival Seahawks. Both teams are 7-4, and the winner will take a solid edge in the battle for a postseason spot, while the loser slips into the crowd of NFC playoff hopefuls with just four games to go.

Since Harbaugh was hired by the 49ers in 2011, San Francisco has won four of seven games. But the 49ers have scored no more than 19 points in each of the last six contests, and their straight-ahead, no-frills style has been stymied by Seattle’s aggressive, attacking defenses.

Johnson and Brandon Lloyd, another receiver acquired in the offseason, give the 49ers a wrinkle that Seattle’s defense hasn’t seen.

“I feel like me and Brandon Lloyd are X-factors that (the coaches) have in their back pocket, and we’ll see what happens as the season goes on,” Johnson said this week.

X-factor may be the best description for Johnson. He’s a tough guy to pin down.

One of the many tattoos that cover his arms, legs and torso is of a child with alien features. That’s how Johnson felt as a kid growing up in San Francisco’s rough Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood.

He chose No. 13 because it was such an odd digit for a wide receiver. While with the Buffalo Bills, he drew as much attention for the messages he wrote on his T-shirts – “Why So Serious?” earned him a $5,000 fine – as he did touchdown catches and 1,000-yard receiving seasons.

He wears floppy Gilligan’s Island-style hats around the locker room, and he recently shot an ad for PETA’s “Ink, not Mink” campaign that shows him wearing nothing but his underwear, displaying his gallery of body art.

He also runs routes differently than most receivers.

That’s initially been an obstacle for his quarterbacks, including Kaepernick, who admitted in training camp that he still was adapting to Johnson’s style. But Kaepernick has since caught on, and Johnson has been a valuable – and at times favorite – target.

He is third on the team in receiving yards (407) and touchdown catches (three) despite fewer than half the snaps of starters Anquan Boldin (825 yards, four touchdowns) and Michael Crabtree (567 yards, four touchdowns).

Kaepernick worked with Johnson for four months before the start of the season, but opposing defensive backs might get four days of film study to try to figure out their adversary. The Seahawks have had less than that, which perhaps gives the 49ers an element of surprise against the team that knows them better than any other.

“He’s got a very unique style that is hard to figure out, hard to gauge at times,” Roman said. “He’s a pretty big guy, too, and he’s pretty quick.”

The Seahawks have faced Johnson once, in 2012. And while they trounced the Bills 50-17, they had a hard time keeping tabs on Johnson. He had eight catches for 115 yards and a touchdown, mostly while matched against ace cornerback Richard Sherman.

Chancellor dismissed any notion that Johnson’s creativity and individuality made him an antidote to the Seahawks’ stifling defense. He said Johnson just had a good game.

“I don’t think it was a difficult-to-cover thing, it was just a guy who made electrifying catches,” Chancellor said. “He made some great catches when he was over there in Buffalo. It’s not a checking-him problem or a guarding-him problem, it’s more of a guy who made great catches on that day. Sometimes guys get hot, and when they get hot, you take your hat off to them that day.”

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

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