Falcons at Cowboys
When: 4:15 p.m. Sunday
On TV, Radio: FOX, 92.9-FM
FLOWERY BRANCH — Michael Turner doesn’t want to talk too much about Atlanta’s inconsistent rushing attack.
Ask the Pro Bowl running back about fumbling in each of the last four games, and Turner will look up at the digital clock hanging above his locker.
Next question, please.
“We want to be productive, man,” Turner said this week.
“It’s hard. This is the NFL. It’s hard to go out there and put up huge numbers every week, but it’s something we have to do. There’s no doubt.”
The Falcons (4-1) have several unresolved issues entering Sunday at Dallas (3-2), but the most glaring problem offensively is Turner’s drop-off in productivity.
Leading the NFL last year with 376 carries, “Turner the Burner” was a powerful, stocky running back who routinely reached the second and third levels of a defense for big gains.
His 45 runs of 10 yards or more were tops in the NFL. His 1,699 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns both ranked second.
When Atlanta traded for Tony Gonzalez a few days before the draft, Turner wondered if the Falcons would stay as committed to his skills set. But he can hardly complain about the number of chances he’s had.
His 100 attempts are just three less than he had at this point last year, and the Falcons have only benefited from the addition of Gonzalez, the NFL’s career-leading tight end.
Though quarterback Matt Ryan has attempted passes on 52.4 percent of Atlanta’s snaps, about an 8 percent increase over last year, Gonzalez’s presence as a run blocker or a decoy have paid dividends for Turner’s success in the red zone.
All of Turner’s six touchdowns have come inside the 7-yard line.
“We’re getting it done when it matters,” Turner said. “We’re 4-1, and that’s a good thing. There’s still stuff we can improve on.”
Turner brushes aside suggestions he’s wearing down after spending his first four seasons as San Diego’s primary backup to LaDainian Tomlinson.
“I still feel good,” he said. “I don’t feel tired or anything like that.”
Notably absent from the Falcons’ offensive weapons, at least compared to last year’s team, is a diminished number of long runs. Other than a 33-yard gain at San Francisco, Turner’s two longest runs from scrimmage were a 16-yarder against Carolina and one against the 49ers.
Not surprisingly, Atlanta’s 98.6 team rushing average ranks 27th, down 25 spots from last year, when it trailed only the Giants.
“It’s not broken,” Turner said. “Everyone knows, as a unit, we don’t want to be the weak link of the team.”
Turner is likely to carry an even larger workload at Dallas. Jerious Norwood, Atlanta’s No. 2 back and one of the NFL’s fastest runners, probably will miss the next two games with a hip flexor.
Fullback Ovie Mughelli, who missed last week’s win over Chicago with a calf injury, is questionable, so the Falcons will give Jason Snelling the bulk of his snaps and use journeyman Verron Haynes if necessary.
“Attrition is a big part of this game,” left guard Justin Blalock said.
“We’ve been fortunate, as a complete unit on the offensive line, to stay together as far as health is concerned. But Jerious’ absence just means we have to do a better job of giving Mike more space between the tackles.”
Turner’s four fumbles are another concern. The Falcons avoided giveaways on two of his fumbles, but frequency is a bigger issue considering that Turner had fumbles throughout last season.
Ryan fell on the ball last week when Bears linebacker Pino Tinoisamoa hit Turner outside of right tackle and knocked the ball loose, but Atlanta coach Mike Smith passed the blame to the entire offense.
“We have guys that are supposed to be blocking the guys that are making tackles and making hits on our ball carriers,” Smith said. “It’s something that we address as an entire offensive unit that we all have to improve on.”