FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Since joining the Atlanta Falcons in 2008, Michael Turner has become one of the NFL’s most productive running backs, rushing for the second-most yards in the league in ’08 (1,699 yards) and leading the NFC last season.
Each year, questions arise as to how he has grown a year older – he’s 30 now – and as to whether the many punishing carries he has amassed will finally take their toll on the 5-foot-10, 247-pounder. Turner has run the ball 1,189 times over the last four seasons, an average of 297.
So far this preseason, Turner has run for 14 yards on eight carries. So is that cause of concern or is it “just preseason”?
“No, not worried about it,” Turner said. “It’s preseason. This stuff doesn’t matter right now. Just get a little work in and get out there.”
Entering the 2012 season, there also is another dynamic at work that could affect Turner’s production and role in the offense. Turner racked up all of those carries with Mike Mularkey as offensive coordinator, as Mularkey preached a smash-mouth running attack. Two-tight end formations with a fullback were commonplace.
With Dirk Koetter at the helm, the Falcons have taken on a new look in their first two preseason games. The emphasis is different. The screen game will take on a much higher priority – somewhat like Philadelphia and head coach Andy Reid, with whom Koetter worked in three different places in the ’80s and ’90s, ties that would seem, at last on the surface, to make for some kind of philosophical affinity. Koetter seems more willing to use three-wide receiver sets and also to throw to running backs more out of the backfield.
“I think every coach is different, that’s for sure,” quarterback Matt Ryan said of the new attack, “so, obviously, he’s going to stress different things. We’ve really been working on some of the things that are different in our offense during training camp and during the preseason, so I think we’ll still have a solid run game for sure.”
Head coach Mike Smith disagreed with the notion the biggest adjustment for any offensive player might belong to Turner.
“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.”
Catching the ball out of the backfield is not exactly what earned Turner trips to two Pro-Bowls since arriving in Atlanta. So, an adjustment seems to be in order. He caught only 11 passes in his first four seasons with San Diego and 40 over the last four seasons with the Falcons, but in last week’s preseason game the Falcons threw to him four times alone in the first half, with Turner catching three for 14 yards.
Smith said he can do it.
“I think that a knock on Michael prior to him getting here was that he didn’t have very good hands,” he said. “I think he’s had more catches since he’s been a Falcon than when he was a Charger. 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 it’s something the team’s running backs practice every day.
“I’m comfortable with it,” he said. “I’ve caught more pass than I have before last year so just trying to get in the groove of things and just getting accustomed to the offense.”
With the new offensive coordinator and the increasing mileage on Turner, it’s also becoming obvious that Jacquizz Rodgers is going to take on a larger role. After last Thursday’s preseason game against Cincinnati, Smith went out of his way to say that he views Rodgers as a three-down back, not just a change-of-pace back.
The small, quick Rodgers seamlessly fits the concept of a back catching the ball out of the backfield. Rodgers realizes he will be used more this season. So far in the preseason, he has 57 rushing yards on 13 attempts (4.4 per carry) and three catches for 23 yards.
“Probably more than last year,” Rodgers said of the potential of increased touches, “but you still got to wait to see how the game is played and how productivity goes and go from there. Whenever my name gets called, I’m going to take full advantage of that.”
In fact, Turner is welcoming a larger role for Rodgers, saying it looks like Rodgers is “ready to take the next step.”
“No doubt,” Turner said in answer to whether Rodgers will help to lighten his load. “A talent like that, he needs to be on the football field and help this ball team win.”
At Miami on Friday, the Falcons will game-plan for the only time during the preseason. Turner said that game will matter most until the real ones begin on Sept. 9 for Atlanta.
“This is the game,” he said, “where everyone wants to look the sharpest.”
That could mean Turner as much as any of the starters.