Heard becomes starting safety

Heard becomes starting safety

FLOWERY BRANCH - After watching Bryan Scott's poor performance at Carolina last week, head coach Jim Mora finally decided that Ronnie Heard would start at free safety Monday night against New Orleans.

Mora, who disclosed the move after his regular Thursday news conference, believes Ronnie Heard can help Atlanta fix some of the problems on defense. Since they beat the New York Jets on Oct. 24, the Falcons have digressed in their attempts to stop the run and rush the passer. They have lost three of their last four games.

Nothing has hurt Atlanta worse, however, than poor tackling, and nobody has struggled more in that area than Scott. Losing two straight home games for the first time in his two-year tenure, Mora knows Atlanta (7-5) is unlikely to earn a postseason spot unless his players correct their mistakes and beat the Saints (3-9).

He and secondary coach Brett Maxie know Heard well. The sixth-year veteran spent his first seasons in San Francisco, where Mora worked as defensive coordinator and Maxie in his currently capacity, before signing a one-year deal with Atlanta March 18.

Heard started 14 games for the 49ers in 2004, but the former Ole Miss standout has spent most of his career playing special teams and providing depth in the secondary. Perhaps foreshadowing his promotion last month, Heard began earning more snaps as the Falcons sought to slow the run with a "heavy" scheme that included three safeties and one cornerback, left-side starter DeAngelo Hall.

Scott, a second-round draft choice from Penn State in 2003, debuted as a backup cornerback for the Falcons but he was moved to safety and promoted to a starting position midway through his rookie year. He has started the last 34 games, but his deficient tackling hit bottom last week after whiffing on DeShaun Foster's 30-yard run and bouncing off Steve Smith along the Atlanta sideline as the receiver scored an 18-yard touchdown.

Strong safety Keion Carpenter maintains his job, and the same goes for Hall and right-side cornerback Jason Webster.

"Here we are at the start of the fourth quarter, and by no stretch of imagination is this thing over for us," Mora said. "We can't allow ourselves to fall into a funk. You can be disappointed, but we have to be determined. It's a little bit hard right now, but that's okay. We've made it that way. This gives us an opportunity to show what we are made of, and that is what our objective is."

Scott simply is as productive as he was before suffering a concussion in Week 5 of 2004. His tackle statistics haven't tapered off dramatically _ Scott has led the team in stops twice this year _ but his propensity for turnovers never recovered.

In the 13 games that followed his move to safety two years ago, Scott had three interceptions, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. He also recorded two sacks for minus-17 yards and successfully defended seven passes.

Since his head was slammed against the Georgia Dome turf in the fourth quarter of a 17-10 loss to Detroit last year, Scott has played in 25 games, but he produced just one interception, forced zero fumbles and had no fumble recoveries. He defended 11 passes and recorded 1.5 sacks for minus-14 yards over that span.

To his credit, Scott never quit. He returned as soon as he could four months ago after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery in March. Mora, Maxie and defensive coordinator Ed Donatell have always praised Scott's character, and his teammates have never had anything negative to say about him.

The Falcons, however, will reach their crossroads Monday night. If they drop to 1-4 in their last five home games, the playoffs would seem unreachable. Atlanta's defense has allowed the last five opponents to average 113.4 yards rushing and 4.8 yards per carry while the pass rush went three games without a sack and a fourth with just one-half of a sack.

Mora still shudders when reminded about the breakdowns last month that helped Green Bay and Tampa Bay quiet the Georgia Dome crowd with respective 14-0 and 13-0 leads.

"We haven't had the success in our dome that we would like," Mora said. "Quite frankly, people ask, 'Do you get disappointed when you go into the Dome and people aren't excited?' I say, 'It is up to us to get people cranked up. I would like to see that place on fire Monday night. I think that would really help us."

It appears Scott will remain active Monday and could play in some situations like two-minute defense or dime coverage. He also is expected to continue his work on special teams.

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