Falcons vs. Chargers
When: 8 p.m., Saturday
Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta
TV, radio: CBS; 550-AM, 92.9 FM
Web site: www.atlantafalcons.com
FLOWERY BRANCH — No player carried the ball more than Michael Turner last season and no NFC team ran more than the Atlanta Falcons.
Turner sees no signs of slacking off from the plan that took the Falcons to the playoffs, and takes some satisfaction in breaking off a couple of 40-yard runs this preseason.
"We’re pretty happy with the progress we’re making," Turner said Sunday. "We’ve been pretty clean timing-wise, who to pick up (on blocks) and things like that, but you still can’t be satisfied or comfortable. Still got to keep working at it."
Last season, the workhorse back ran the ball 376 times for 1,699 yards, good enough for second most in the NFL behind Adrian Peterson’s 1,760 yards on 363 carries. The Falcons ran the ball 560 times overall.
With the offseason acquisition, however, of 10-time Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez, Turner doesn’t know if Atlanta will need him as much this year. Matt Ryan already had an elite target with Pro Bowl receiver Roddy White, and the second-year quarterback still wants to get as many touches as he can for wideouts Michael Jenkins and Brian Finneran and speedy running back Jerious Norwood.
For the Falcons, the problem is a good one, and their Pro Bowl running back agrees.
"Last year, with a rookie quarterback, I knew there’d be a lot of carries," Turner said. "This is his second year. He’s more comfortable with the offense, and now in our playbook, with the addition of Tony, it makes it even more wide open. The ball will still get spread around, but I’ll still expect to carry the bulk of the load."
That certainly was the case on Atlanta’s opening drive in last week’s 20-13 preseason victory in St. Louis.
And the scenario might be similar Saturday night when the Falcons (1-1) host San Diego (1-1).
Against the Rams, Turner took the game’s second handoff and ran up the middle for 43 yards. One snap later, he went around right end for a 9-yard gain.
After running 7 yards around left end to leave Atlanta first-and-goal at the 6, Turner went up the middle for four, took a handoff in a shotgun formation for a 1-yard gain over left tackle Sam Baker and another handoff for a 1-yard touchdown over left guard Justin Blalock.
That’s all the work Atlanta needed from its $34.5 million running back. No need risking injury to the back who expects the Falcons to play deep into postseason this winter.
"I can’t judge anything yet," Turner said. "All I know is I feel better than this time last year. I don’t know if it’s midseason form or not, but we’ll find out pretty soon."
Atlanta was supposed to rebuild last year with a rookie quarterback, a first-time head coach in Mike Smith and a first-time general manager in Thomas Dimitroff.
Turner, who spent the first four years of his career as a backup in San Diego, showed flashes of brilliance when he spelled for injured superstar LaDainian Tomlinson, but he had never taken the kind of beating required of a starting NFL running back.
The results were impressive, though. Turner scored 17 touchdowns, Ryan was named NFL offensive rookie of the year, Smith was NFL coach of the year, and Atlanta won 11 games.
"Philosophically, we’ve said from the beginning that we’re going to run the ball," Smith said. "We’re going to control the line of scrimmage. But as an offense, we’re going to take what the defense gives us, and I think the more options that you have, the more options you (present) for the opponent."
Adding Gonzalez, the league’s career-leading tight end, could give Ryan more chances to exploit opponents in play-action with Turner.
"If they want to load the box and try to take away our run game, then we’re going to try to make them stay on the outside or with our tight end," Smith said. "The more weapons you have, the more chances you have for success."
Gonzalez, who spent his first 12 years in Kansas City before the trade, believes his run-blocking can help Turner more easily reach the third level of a defense.