Falcons Running Back Michael Turner Still Shoulders the Load

“I’m from Chicago,” Turner said with a grin. “I’ve played in some weather before. Finesse? Give me a break.”

The Falcons (10-6) have been nothing close to a finesse team in the four years Turner has played in Atlanta, including this season when the team mixed into its scheme the fascinating and fast rookie wide receiver Julio Jones. There were assumptions that the Falcons were going to change their identity as a one-cut, downhill-run team when they acquired Jones, an all-American from Alabama, but Turner is still the 247-pound billboard of the Falcons’ offense.

Turner carried the ball 301 times this season, second in the league to Jacksonville’s Maurice Jones-Drew (343), and that was with Turner dealing with a groin strain. Because of Turner, who rushed for 1,340 yards this season, the Falcons are a complementary offense that does not have to put every game in the hands of quarterback Matt Ryan.

“To me that has been the most misrepresented statement about us, that we lost our identity,” said Thomas Dimitroff, the Atlanta general manager, who signed Turner to a six-year contract in 2008. “I started hearing that earlier in the season. We never lost our identity. We are based around a strong running game. We have always talked about working down the middle of the field. When we acquired Julio we never had plans to go away from having Michael run the rock.”

Turner, who averaged 4.5 yards per carry this season, has run the ball more than 300 times in three of the four seasons he has been in Atlanta. Only Tennessee’s Chris Johnson (5,645) and Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson (5,411) have more rushing yards in the last four seasons than Turner (5,281).

When Turner went five consecutive games without a 100-yard game in the second half of this season, there was some theorizing that he was wearing down and maybe the Falcons needed to become a more fanciful offense. Turner is 29 years old and had spent four years in San Diego (2004 to 2007) as a backup to LaDainian Tomlinson. There is an understanding that punishing blows make a short shelf life for an running back, and this is Turner’s eighth season.

“I’m not wearing down,” he said. “We just lost some of our chemistry there for a few games. It fell off a little bit; hopefully we have our consistency back.”

Ovie Mughelli, a Pro Bowl fullback in 2010, was placed on injured reserve Oct. 25 with a knee injury and the Falcons lost some traction in their run game. They seemed to convalesce and reconstituted the running game last Sunday against Tampa Bay, when Turner ran for 172 yards, albeit against a team that lost its last 10 games of the season.

“It was great to see Michael Turner get back on track,” Coach Mike Smith said. “We knew that our run game had been trending down over the last four or five weeks. It was something that we looked at very closely.”

The Falcons put Turner on a routine where he was not practicing Wednesdays and Thursdays, and he looked fresh against the Bucs. He dashed 81 yards for a score, and defenders tried to avoid head-on collisions on his way down the field.

Turner is the essence of the Falcons because they are designed to be a fourth-quarter team. They want to run the ball and limit possessions, keeping the score down, and grind on a defense. Atlanta has a veteran field goal kicker, Matt Bryant, so it can win those low-scoring, fourth-quarter games.

The running game is so effective that the Falcons are not afraid to use play-action on first down where they fake a run and pass. They patiently poke around with the run, and while other teams might want to show off their playbook, the Falcons will come back to successful run plays.

The opponents who have been successful against the Atlanta run game, like Jacksonville, stay in a base front on defense and do not move around. They set a vertical edge to make Turner cut back abruptly and know how to fit against the Falcons’ run plays so they have two tacklers coming downhill at the point of attack. Turner is the antidote to the Giants’ pass rush because his early-down runs can keep the Falcons out of bad situations, like third-and-7s.

“Things have always worked out for me,” Turner said. “I was never worried this season about being that piece, not being that piece. I’m a guy who waits his turn and tries to be part of the team.”

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