Heard ready to handle his heightened role?

When 49ers defensive coordinator Jim Mora looks at Ronnie Heard, he sees Zack Bronson. That's a good thing for the Niners, because Heard now becomes Bronson in the San Francisco defense. And how the third-year player handles his new role as the team's starting free safety could be a major factor in San Francisco's fortunes as the Niners enter the heart of their schedule.

When SFI asked Mora on Thursday how much confidence he has in Heard stepping into such a vital role on the NFL's eighth-ranked defense, visions of Bronson immediately began dancing in the coach's eyes.

"Ronnie's the same kind of guy as Zack," Mora said. "He's like a young Zack Bronson, really. He was like Zack was a couple of years ago - young and really figuring it out. Then we saw Zack flourish."

Bronson was a big reason for San Francisco's drastic improvement in the secondary last season, when he blossomed as a starter with seven interceptions. Bronson continued his development into one of the top free safeties in the league this year, when he roamed center field for the Niners and came up with a series of key hits and big plays before breaking his foot in the second quarter of Monday's victory over Seattle.

Bronson is out 6-to-8 weeks after undergoing surgery on his foot. Before the injury, he had forced two fumbles, broken up three passes and recorded 20 tackles. Bronson's three interceptions place him third in the NFC, and he was playing at a Pro Bowl level.

Now Heard must step in and try to provide some of the same. Or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof.

He says he's up to the challenge.

"Zack took me under his wing and I know everything about this defense," Heard said. "I know this defense better than (secondary coach Brett) Maxie. If somebody messes up, I'll be there to help out."

Heard has been a big find for the Niners since making the team as an undrafted rookie in 2000. He started three games at strong safety as a rookie, and was one of the team's top reserves and special teams players last year, when he had 27 tackles and forced two fumbles.

Now Heard moves into a more significant role, and the Niners feel he's ready to handle it. He'd better, because the defense has been carrying the offense so far in San Francisco's 4-1 start.

"He's been on the field, he knows how to play, he's confident, he understands our schemes," Mora said. "He's smart and he communicates well. Ronnie's going to do just fine."

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