FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. - Ronnie Heard knows what Jim Mora and Brett Maxie want from their safeties.
Antuan Edwards needed a little longer to figure out his new coaches, but he and Heard showed last week that they can add some aggression the Atlanta Falcons lacked at safety.
"You've heard the saying, 'Bring the wood,' right?" Heard said this week. "Well, that's a position that requires the player to be really physical and remind other teams that they'll pay a price if they send somebody over the middle."
When the Falcons (8-5) travel to Chicago (9-4) this weekend, Heard will start his second game in place of the demoted free safety Bryan Scott. Maxie believes Heard and Edwards, the new nickel back, can change the complexion of a secondary that Scott routinely hurt with poor tackling technique.
"Ronnie will hit you, but he'll do it right," said Maxie, the Falcons' secondary coach. "What impresses me about him is that he doesn't beat himself. You won't see him out of position. That's the first step to making plays."
A former Ole Miss standout who played his first five seasons in San Francisco, Heard started 14 games last year for the 49ers defense that no longer had Mora as coordinator and Maxie as secondary coach.
Many of his statistics were career highs, but Heard took little pleasure in the accomplishment as San Francisco went 2-14. He signed in March with the Atlanta Falcons, whom Mora led to the NFC title game in his first season as head coach.
"I guess you would call that bittersweet," Heard said. "Nobody wants to play for team that loses that 14 games. It's hard to find any positive to take from a situation like that."
Edwards was a first-round pick for Green Bay in 1999, but the former Clemson standout projected as a cornerback. Injuries factored in his inability to beat out Mike McKenzie or Tyrone Williams, so Ed Donatell, now in his second year as coordinator in Atlanta, moved him to safety.
"He's a guy who can help you," Donatell said recently. "Smart kid. He'll hit you, too."
Like Heard, Edwards had to endure the agony of a lost season in 2004 as Miami was in the midst of a 4-12 season when the Dolphins released him. Edwards bounced from St. Louis to New England before the Falcons signed him as an insurance policy on Nov. 2.
Donatell and Maxie kept hoping that Scott would correct his problems on the field, but they finally ran out of patience. Heard's promotion also meant snaps for Edwards, who was inactive during his first five games.
"Antuan has some moxie to him," Mora said. "He's played corner, safety, and the nickel and he understands the big picture. I think having him right now is a big advantage. That's our personnel department looking down the road."
Heard was an undrafted rookie free agent with San Francisco in 2000. Mora was in his second season as the 49ers' defensive coordinator and Maxie in his second year as an assistant secondary coach.
San Francisco, which finished 4-12 that year, used nine rookies and five second-year players on defense. Heard appeared in 13 games with three starts.
Now that he's fighting for a playoff spot with the Falcons, Heard feels much better about his situation.
"He's a long-legged guy and sometimes it's hard for him to break down, but he gives me a level of comfort when he is in there," Mora said. "More than anything I think it's my familiarity with him. I've coached him (most of) his entire career."
Notes: Starting right end Brady Smith (toe), reserve nose tackle Antwan Lake (shoulder) and cornerback Allen Rossum (knee) remained questionable on the injury report the Falcons filed to the NFL on Thursday. Neither is expected to play against the Bears.
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