Turner keeps burning defenses

January, 2, 2009
1/02/09
10:06
AM ET
 
 Dale Zanine/US Presswire
 Michael "Burner" Turner had eight 100-yard games and two 200-yard games this season for the Falcons.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

PHOENIX -- In this age of "Smash and Dash" and "Double Trouble," people in Atlanta only need a one-word nickname to describe the Falcons' running game.

That's because Michael "Burner" Turner is the Falcons' running game.

No running back carried the ball more often in the regular season. Turner had 376 carries (23.5 a game) for 1,699 yards and 17 touchdowns. If you think that sounds like a case of overusing a single player at a time when most coaches prefer some sort of two- or three-headed backfield, you'd be wrong.

The proof is in the end result. Giving the ball to Turner repeatedly has worked wonders for the Falcons. They're 11-5 and in the playoffs for the first time since 2004 when they take on the Arizona Cardinals on Saturday.

"Michael just gets stronger and stronger as the game goes on,'' first-year coach Mike Smith said. "Going into the playoffs, we want to be able to run the football and it looks like Michael is very healthy."

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It's tough for any running back to stay completely healthy for an entire season and that's why so many coaches like to spread carries around. But Turner and the Falcons are the exception and it's not by accident.

This is exactly what the Falcons planned when they wouldn't let Turner leave their facility without signing a contract at the start of free agency. What the Falcons essentially were purchasing was a new car that had been test driven only a handful of times.

Although Turner had been in the NFL for four seasons, his odometer showed only 228 carries after playing behind LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego. Fresh legs and a fresh body made Turner precisely the type of workhorse running back the Falcons knew they needed and this was long before they even knew they would draft quarterback Matt Ryan to run the offense.

In the complicated world of the NFL, Smith is as simple a guy as there is. As he inherited the mess caused by Bobby Petrino and Michael Vick, Smith came with a strong defensive background and only one philosophy on offense.

No matter what, he wanted to be able to run the football and run it frequently. Smith cut veteran Warrick Dunn, a 10,000-yard career rusher, and knew he needed more than backup Jerious Norwood (a classic speed back).

Turner had shown some flashes in his time with the Chargers, but the Falcons were taking a leap of faith in thinking he could give them 23 carries a game. That turned out to be the single-best move in all of free agency last year.

Ryan has been better than anyone expected, receivers Roddy White and Michael Jenkins have turned into a nice tandem, the special teams are excellent and the defense has played over its head.

But Atlanta's success story all stems straight from Turner.

"I believe in my abilities," Turner said. "I just show up to work every week and see what happens."

What's happened has been nothing but good things. Turner gave the Falcons eight 100-yard games and two 200-yard games. He has taken the pressure off Ryan and let the defense stay fresh by keeping the clock moving.

All that has come behind an offensive line that's full of no-name guys, unless you count rookie left tackle Sam Baker, who missed a large chunk of the season because of injuries. Todd Weiner, Todd McClure, Justin Blalock, Harvey Dahl and Tyson Clabo aren't especially talented as individuals. But they're strong as a group and they're coached by one of the league's best offensive line coaches, Paul Boudreau.

"They were the hardest-working group in the offseason," Turner said. "They are tough on the football field. I wouldn't have that many yards if those guys weren't doing what they were doing on the football field."

Turner gets only an occasional breather. Norwood carried 95 times for 489 yards and four touchdowns while getting a lot of playing time in passing situations. But most situations are about running for the Falcons and that's why they keep Turner on the field so much.

He's only 25 and the wear and tear of this season hasn't shown any real negative effects. It's a pretty safe bet that, in the future, the Falcons don't want Turner carrying 376 times a season. Doing that for more than one season probably would be asking for trouble and a short career for Turner.

At some point, the Falcons would like to give Norwood more carries and maybe even bring in another running back to help lighten Turner's load a bit. But that's in the future.

Against the Cardinals and however long the Falcons last in the postseason, they're going t
o keep handing the ball to Turner as much as possible. Yes, that's a heavy load for one player. But Turner has shown he's strong enough to handle everything the Falcons put on his shoulders.

He has carried them this far and, at this point, there's no sense in the Falcons worrying about how many carries Turner is getting. Let the Cardinals and any other defense Atlanta plays worry about that.

Pat Yasinskas | email

ESPN Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter

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