Niners searching again at safety

The Niners have some decisions to make in their secondary now that starting free safety Zack Bronson will miss the heart of the season. Bronson had surgery Tuesday on a broken bone in his left foot and could be out the next two months, leaving the Niners scrambling at a position that had been one of the strongest on the team before he was injured during Monday night's win over the Seattle Seahawks.

"I'll just tell it like it is," Niners coach Steve Mariucci said early Tuesday afternoon. "(Bronson) fractured the fifth metatarsal in his foot. We'll know more after the surgery, but a first estimation is he'll be out 6-to-8 weeks. Ronnie Heard's going to have to take his place."

Heard is hobbled himself. He missed the Oct. 6 victory over the St. Louis Rams with a high ankle sprain, but he was able to play the entire second half in Bronson's place and finished with three tackles.

Heard's ankle was sore Tuesday, but he now is the Niners' starting free safety. Mariucci said Heard "should be OK to go," for Sunday's NFC showdown between the 4-1 Niners and 5-1 New Orleans Saints.

"He played OK (against Seattle) and he's just going to have to do it and he will," Mariucci said.

The Niners had only three safeties active against the Seahawks, which has been their standard operating procedure most of this season. Jason Moore, the fourth safety on the team's roster, would seem a likely candidate to slide into the third safety role, but general manager Terry Donahue said Monday night that the Niners would likely activate safety John Keith from the practice squad to lend help to the position.

Keith - a fourth-round draft pick in 2000 who started as a rookie - hasn't played since tearing knee ligaments on the opening kickoff of the 2001 season opener. He was cut in August because the team didn't feel he was physically ready to play. But Donahue appears to have changed his mind about that.

"He's made progress," Donahue said. "He's gotten better every week."

The Niners also received bad news on veteran Terry Jackson, the team's stalwart special teams captain and backup fullback. Jackson has a torn ACL in his right knee - not an MCL tear as originally believed - that will require surgery that could end his season.

"That's going to be a lengthy rehab," Mariucci said. "We need to figure out what we're going to do at the backup fullback spot."

Paul Smith, the backup fullback to starter Fred Beasley before being injured before the bye week, has not played since and still is "a couple weeks away from playing," Mariucci said, because of a strained left hamstring.


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