Michael Turner, who has the most carries in the NFL the last four seasons, is facing the possibility of a diminished role this season.
Turner has flourished in Atlanta’s run-first offense, claiming the Falcons’ career record for rushing touchdowns in only four seasons.
There are new questions for the 30-year-old Turner in a pass-first offense. He looked slower late last season and in limited carries in his first two preseason games.
New offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter’s scheme is emphasizing Matt Ryan’s passes, including screens that may better suit the skills of second-year running back Jacquizz Rodgers.
Turner said he remains confident in his place in the offense. He shrugged off his meager preseason totals – 8 carries for 14 yards.
”No, not worried about it. It’s preseason,” Turner said this week. ”This stuff doesn’t matter right now. Just get a little work in and get out there.”
Turner has a chance to disprove his doubters in the Falcons’ third preseason game at Miami on Friday night. The starters are expected to play the full first half and into the second half, perhaps giving a better indicator of how Turner fits in the 2012 plans for the Falcons (No. 13 in the AP Pro32).
The starters likely will see less work in the final preseason game as they begin to prepare for the opener at Kansas City. That makes Friday night an important warm-up for Turner and the offense.
”This is the game where everyone wants to look the sharpest,” Turner said. ”So we go out there this week and game plan like it’s a real game. It’s like a little dress rehearsal going into the game and make sure we clean some things up before we going into Kansas City.”
Since signing with the Falcons before the 2008 season, Turner leads the NFL with 1,189 carries – two more than Tennessee’s Chris Johnson, according to STATS LLC.
Turner has rushed for 5,281 yards in those four seasons, third in the NFL behind Johnson and Adrian Peterson. He led the NFC with 1,340 yards rushing last season.
Coach Mike Smith has said he does not expect Turner to reach 300 carries this season.
The coach said he did not agree with the perception Turner has struggled to adjust to the new offense.
”No, I don’t,” Smith said. ”I think Mike is going to be an integral part to our offense. We’ve done some work on some different areas in the first two preseason games. Again, you’re not game-planning. You’re trying to look at things and work on certain things.
”Michael, he’s our No. 1 back. He’s going to get his touches just like the other guys, and it’s going to be based on how people try to defend us.”
The back whose nickname is ”Turner the Burner” ran more like a churner late last season. Turner (5-10, 247) averaged 5.6 yards per carry in September and only 3.4 yards in December.
The Giants shut down Turner and the Falcons’ offense in the playoffs. He had 15 carries for only 41 yards, including three stuffs, in Atlanta’s 24-2 loss.
The late-season decline and poor showing in the playoffs supported the theory Turner wore down last year. He didn’t look spent when he closed the regular season on Jan. 1 with 172 yards against Tampa Bay, including an 81-yard touchdown run that was the longest of his career.
There are expected to be more chances for the running backs to be used as receivers out of the backfield this season. Rodgers and Jason Snelling, who has 100 catches the last three seasons, could benefit from Koetter’s calls for screens.
Turner set a career high with his modest total of 17 catches for 168 yards last season.
Smith said Turner has never been asked to catch a lot of passes.
”I think that a knock on Michael prior to him getting here was that he didn’t have very good hands,” Smith said. ”… We’ve had an opportunity to throw him the ball a couple of times when he was in the game last week and we did some of that in training camp. I think Michael has got good hands.”
Turner said he’s adjusting to the Falcons’ new emphasis on the passing game.
”I’m comfortable with it,” he said. ”I caught more passes last year than I have before, so I’m just trying to get in the groove of things and just getting accustomed to the offense.”