Late round talent will be key

<b> PITTSBURGH - </b> The San Francisco 49ers suffered a key blow to their defense when back-up linebacker Jamie Winborn was placed on injured reserve with herniated disks in his neck. The injury could threaten his career.

"The announcement came Friday the way Winborn does on a blitz - out of nowhere," wrote San Jose Mercury News columnist Skip Bayless.

Even though Winborn played mainly in the nickel alignment, he was a valuable role player for a team that relies heavily on its linebackers under new coach Dennis Erickson.

Winborn, third on the 49ers in solo tackles (40) and sacks (3), felt a tingling in his arm after falling backward during Wednesday's practice. He wanted to see a chiropractor, but the 49ers first insisted on an MRI, which revealed the problem.

Winborn will be replaced in the 49ers' nickel by second-year player Saleem Rasheed. Weak-side backer Jeff Ulbrich, who missed the 49ers' last game, will return to the lineup, even though he "hobbled around practice Friday for about 10 snaps," according to the San Francisco Examiner. Winborn, 5-foot-11, 245, was drafted by the 49ers in 2001 with the 16th pick of the second round. The Steelers, with the eighth pick of the second round, drafted linebacker Kendrell Bell, a run-stuffer who comes off the field on passing downs. Winborn does the opposite but has become as important to his team as Bell is to the Steelers.

Wrote Bayless: "Last season, the 49ers played defense on their heels. This year, they've kept gun-shy quarterbacks on their toes. … When I mentioned this amazing turnaround to (defensive coordinator Jim) Mora, he reacted as if the reason was obvious: 'We didn't have Jamie Winborn last year.'"

They won't have him Monday night, nor are they expected to have free safety Zack Bronson, considered "the quarterback" of the 49ers' defense. Bronson also has neck and shoulder problems.

The Steelers, meanwhile, welcomed running back Jerome Bettis (shoulder) and right tackle Oliver Ross (ankle) back to practice late in the week. Both players are listed as questionable but are expected to play.

Teams rarely find big, strong and fast cornerbacks on the second day of the draft, but the Steelers are feeling good about finding Ike Taylor with the 28th pick of the fourth round, one pick after the 49ers chose wide receiver Brandon Lloyd.

"Ike Taylor is a guy who we looked at before the draft," said Erickson. "He's a very talented young guy who just hasn't played."

So why not take a chance in the fourth round?

"You just don't know how they are going to play," Erickson said. "Sometimes it's a guessing game but we thought he was very talented and very athletic."

Erickson will learn more about Taylor on Monday. He'll be the Steelers' dime back for a second consecutive game. Ironically, he'll at times be matched against Lloyd, the 49ers' No. 3 receiver who's also coming off his most extended playing time of the season.

Against the St. Louis Rams, Lloyd caught two passes for 35 yards and a touchdown.

Since the fifth game of the season, when Andre Davis of the Cleveland Browns returned a kickoff 69 yards, the Steelers have improved immensely in kick coverage.

In the first five games, the Steelers had a net punting average of 34.9 yards and allowed opponents to start, on average, at the 32-yard line after kickoffs.

In the past four games, the Steelers had a net punting average of 38.2 yards and allowed opponents to start, on average, at the 21-yard line after kickoffs.

The kickers help, of course, but the coverage men are taking turns delivering some big blows. Larry Foote delivered a key hit last game. Chris Hope, Clint Kriewaldt and Lee Mays have also stood out of late. But the player who gets the most respect from teammates is the smallest of the group, Chidi Iwuoma, all 5-8, 184 pounds of him.

"I guess you'd say I have a little-man complex," said Iwuoma. "I like to take it out on the field a little bit."

So far, Iwuoma's best hit of the year was his first. In the opener, the Steelers' punt gunner laid out Lamont Brightful just after he'd caught the ball. Coach Bill Cowher referred to the hit later in the year when he scolded rookie Troy Polamalu for being too reckless in coverage and "going for the Chidi shot."

"He's an assassin," said Hope. The comment was overheard by wide receiver Plaxico Burress. "Chidi just got back from Iraq, man," Burress said.

"He's fearless," said special teams coach Kevin Spencer. "He's in great control of his body, so he can avoid the blocks, and he plays fast with utter disregard."

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