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Monday, September 19, 2011
Turner still the heart of Atlanta's offense

By Pat Yasinskas

Michael Turner
Michael Turner averaged 5.4 yards a carry as he finished with 21 carries and a score.
ATLANTA -- Talk all you want about how the Atlanta Falcons should go to the no-huddle offense or how they should throw down the field more often.

There may be some truth to both theories. But when it comes to the real core of the Atlanta offense, there’s one thing you need to keep in mind. Don’t ever forget that the real backbone of this offense is Michael Turner and the running game.

If you want proof, just look at a couple of crucial plays in the fourth quarter of Sunday night’s 35-31 victory against the Philadelphia Eagles in the Georgia Dome.

Although there was a lot of hype about quarterbacks Michael Vick and Matt Ryan going head to head for the first time, they didn’t decide the game. Turner might have been the guy who did that.

With Philadelphia leading 31-28 with 7 minutes, 54 seconds remaining and Atlanta holding the ball at its 13-yard line, Turner broke off a 61-yard run. Five plays later he plunged in for a 3-yard touchdown to give the Falcons the lead for good.

“Matt might like to think we’re a passing team and [receiver] Roddy [White] will definitely tell you we’re a passing team,’’ fullback Ovie Mughelli said. “But Michael and I will tell you we’re a running team, and tonight shows that. Really, they go hand in hand. You’ve got to be able to run and you’ve got to be able to pass. Call us either one, but call us a happy team because we were a winning team tonight.’’

Vick left the game with a concussion in the third quarter and didn’t return. Ryan, whose performance was rocky at times earlier in the game, took control once the Falcons went to the no-huddle offense in the fourth quarter after falling behind 31-21. Ryan finished with a career-best four touchdown passes, but the Falcons wouldn’t have won this game without Turner.

His long run put Philadelphia’s defense, which spent a fortune on free agents in the offseason, on its heels. His touchdown also was the difference on the scoreboard.

Turner carried 21 times for 114 yards. It marked the 21st time since he joined the Falcons in 2008 that Turner has rushed for 100 or more yards.

“That’s one of the top defensive lines in the league,’’ Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “We just kept scratching where we were going and we finally busted one open.’’

The long run came on a trap play and Smith’s right when he says the Falcons worked all night to set it up.

“I was a spectator on the sidelines for that play,’’ Mughelli said. “But the coaches were all saying, 'This could be the one. This could be the one where he breaks it.' We’d been looking at the photos of our plays all game long and you could just see that one was going to break open at some point. We were close on it a whole bunch of times. We’d just miss a block or two here and there. We finally put all those blocks together and Mike was able to break it.’’

Turner’s play came immediately after the Falcons had another of his runs wiped out by a holding penalty on Joe Hawley. The Falcons (1-1) were already in the no-huddle offense, and it would have been easy to grow impatient and just abandon the running game. They could have just put the game in Ryan’s hands, but they didn’t.

That’s partly because Ryan calls the shots when the Falcons run the no-huddle offense and he liked what he saw.

“We got the look we wanted,’’ Ryan said. “That was a huge play in turning the field position and getting us on a roll.’’

It has often been suggested by fans and media that the Falcons should go with the no-huddle offense more often or maybe even all of the time. It also has been suggested that the Falcons should allow Ryan to throw downfield more often, especially now that he’s got rookie receiver Julio Jones to go with White.

But there weren’t a lot of downfield passes to those two against the Eagles, who have cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Asante Samuel. White had three catches for 23 yards and a touchdown. Jones had two catches for 29 yards.

Yeah, things seemed to go a little better once the Falcons went to the no-huddle offense, but offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey isn’t going to be out of a job anytime soon.

“No, no, no, no,’’ Ryan said when asked if he should call the plays from now on. “Mike does a great job for us, and that’s for sure.’’

Ryan finished with only 195 total passing yards while completing 17 of 28 passes. His main target was tight end Tony Gonzalez. At this stage of his career, Gonzalez isn’t really a downfield threat. He caught seven passes for 83 yards and two touchdowns, including a spectacular one-handed grab in the back of the end zone.

There will be times this season when the Falcons aren’t playing two marquee cornerbacks or aren’t playing against a Cover 2 defense like Chicago’s in a season-opening loss. In those situations, the Falcons may finally get to the downfield passing they’ve talked so much about.

There might be some other games where they go with the no-huddle offense earlier if they think it will help with tempo and matchups. This offense is a work in progress and things will go back and forth throughout the season.

But one thing will always hold true. Turner and the running game need to be at the heart of things if this offense is going to thrive.