SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -Perhaps a backup tight end was the lynchpin that held the San Francisco 49ers' offense together last season. Maybe Eric Johnson's departure for New Orleans is the reason the Niners can't move the ball anymore.
It's an unlikely scenario, but San Francisco has ventured just about every other explanation for its offensive ineptitude this season. So Johnson's return to Candlestick Park with the Saints on Sunday hardly seems likely to be the first step in the 49ers' recovery.
Now excelling in New Orleans, Johnson left the 49ers (2-4) a year after they drafted Vernon Davis to replace him. The former seventh-round pick from Yale has been surprised to see the 49ers' offense fall so far so fast, despite returning almost every important player from last season - except Johnson, of course.
``I thought we had a good thing going last year,'' said Johnson, who caught 34 passes from Alex Smith in 2006. ``Obviously they had the injury to Alex, and things just didn't go their way. You can't worry about that too much when you're six games in, but hopefully they'll get things turned around after they play us.''
The Saints (2-4) already have recovered from their own early-season stumbles with consecutive victories. They'll return to a familiar West Coast stop from their days in the NFC West with plans to continue their comeback after reaching last season's conference title game.
``They are a team much like ourselves that has been struggling,'' Saints coach Sean Payton said. ``There are some similarities with the two teams, just in regards to trying to find their rhythm offensively.''
Johnson already has found his rhythm in the Big Easy. He has 28 catches, seven more than any 49ers receiver, and 16 more than Davis, for 194 yards and a touchdown.
After rejecting an offer to remain Davis' backup, he's still getting adjusted after his move from Silicon Valley's temperate suburbia to the humidity and hubbub of downtown New Orleans. But he's enthused by the Saints' revival.
``I've been a starter most of my career, and I wanted to see if I could come here and do the same,'' Johnson said. ``I knew when we drafted Vernon Davis, it wasn't looking great. I just want to be out there playing football.''
While Johnson thrives, San Francisco has fallen to the bottom of the NFL in most statistical categories during its four-game losing streak.
The 49ers would seem to be easy pickings for Will Smith, Charles Grant and the New Orleans defense. They already showed their ineptitude against strong pass-rushing linemen last week in New York, when the Giants sacked Trent Dilfer six times and forced four turnovers.
But Alex Smith returns to the starting lineup this weekend after a three-game absence with a separated right shoulder. Though Smith's numbers weren't any better than Dilfer's stats, he won two of his first three starts. His leadership and playmaking could make a difference.
``I think we can definitely get it turned around,'' Smith said. ``To have to sit out the last few games and not be able to help out your team, it's tough. When you get to this point in the season, you're playing for the guys next to you. It feels good to be able to go to battle with them.''
The Saints are making their first trip to San Francisco since leaving the division six years ago. The Niners have been to the Superdome three times since then, losing in all three trips, and providing the perfect foil for Reggie Bush's breakout game last season.
Smith's high school teammate from San Diego tied the New Orleans franchise record by scoring four touchdowns while gaining 168 total yards in the Saints' 34-10 victory last December. He had 131 yards on his receptions, and the 49ers are well aware of their inability to tackle the slippery Heisman Trophy winner.
``Guys have got to swarm to the ball, and that's what we've been practicing all week,'' 49ers safety Michael Lewis said. ``He's one of the best players I've seen when he's out in space. His agility is amazing. When you play against a guy that's a make-you-miss kind of guy, you have to attack him and trust the other guys are going to be there.''
At least the 49ers have shored up their punt-return game with an assist from the Saints. Another Michael Lewis, the former beer-truck driver from New Orleans who became a folk hero by making the roster of his hometown team, has been solid since joining San Francisco as a free agent.
``Of course I want to bust one on them,'' Lewis said with a grin, ``just so I can let them know.''

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