FLOWERY BRANCH — The first five games of Mike Smith’s career as a head coach have proved he was serious about bringing a run-first emphasis back to the Atlanta Falcons.
But run-first doesn’t mean pass last. A surprise to the Falcons’ 3-2 start has been the growing balance in the offense, including a willingness to pass early.
When Green Bay’s defense stacked the line to stop running back Michael Turner last week, rookie quarterback Matt Ryan was ready to throw.
Ryan and Roddy White combined for eight receptions for 132 yards and a touchdown in the first half of Atlanta’s 27-24 win at Green Bay.
Ryan also threw a first-half scoring pass to tight end Justin Peelle. He finished 16-for-26 passing and set career highs with 194 yards passing and two touchdowns.
Atlanta is averaging 180.6 yards rushing and 164.2 yards passing, and that balance could be important on Sunday against the Chicago Bears, who allow only 74.2 yards rushing per game.
“We think we can run the football and our mind-set is we’ve got to be able to run it against everybody,” Smith said Wednesday.
Turner rushed for 121 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries against the Packers. He has rushed for more than 100 yards in each of the team’s three wins, including a franchise-record 220 yards in an opening victory against Detroit.
Turner says he hopes the Falcons try to prove they can run against any defensive alignment, even if the Bears stack their defensive line.
“To win in the league, you’ve got to be able to run against those big fronts, those eight-man fronts,” Turner said. “If you show you can’t run against them, that’s when everybody is going to do it every week.
“You’ve got to be able to show some sign that we’re able to do that, and it gives the offense confidence that we don’t care how they line up, we’re still going to run it at you.”
Chicago cornerback Nathan Vasher says the Falcons and Bears share a similar offensive mind-set.
“I know they like to run the ball,” Vasher said of the Falcons. “We do, too. It’s really not a whole lot of difference. They like to pride themselves on doing that. Hopefully, we can stop their runs and, on offense, get more runs than they do.”
That’s a challenge Smith may not be able to resist.
“I think it will be a good 15-rounder,” he said.
“This is going to be one of those very physical football games. We like to say that we’re a physical football team and they are as well.”
Smith said he’s more interested in building a winning plan which emphasizes the running game.
“We’re always going to set out to try to run the football,” he said. “I think in the first five games we’ve done that. When you’re able to run the ball effectively, it allows you to do a number of different things, especially in the passing game.”
White continues to emerge as a big-play threat on the perimeter and an effective complement to the running game. The fourth-year veteran has 26 catches for 454 yards and two touchdowns after his breakout 2007 season, when he had 83 catches for 1,202 yards and six touchdowns.
“I’m starting to develop a good rapport with him and he makes it easy, because he does so many things well,” Ryan said.
Added Turner: “I think Roddy is enjoying not getting doubled all the time.”
Ryan has passed for two touchdowns with no interceptions while winning his first two home starts against Detroit and Kansas City. Ryan’s first road win at Green Bay may have provided the better indication of his growth as a rookie and his ability to pass in more difficult situations.
“It’s a creative offense and anytime you run the ball successfully it opens up other avenues in your offense,” said offensive tackle Todd Weiner. “That’s part of the situation you’re looking at now. When you’re successful in one thing it opens up possibilities in another.
“We knew there was going to be emphasis on the run, but we also knew that we were going to throw the ball downfield as well.”
Notes: White “had a pretty good collision” in Wednesday’s practice, according to Smith, and was held out of the rest of the session. “It was precautionary,” Smith said. ... Defensive end John Abraham missed practice and was at an area hospital awaiting the birth of his second child, according to Smith. ... Weiner (knee), DT Grady Jackson (knee) and C Todd McClure (calf) were held out as rain forced the team to practice in its indoor facility. Smith said Weiner and Jackson may have participated if the practice had been held outside.