ATLANTA — Ovie Mughelli delivered a cut block, just as he’s supposed to do. Michael Turner spotted the opening and headed toward the end zone.
Unfortunately for Turner, the defender hopped back up, stuck out a hand and tripped him up. Instead of a touchdown, the Falcons settled for a field goal.
That’s the way it’s gone for the Atlanta running game this season.
“It’s just the little things,” center Todd McClure said. “Just from watching the film, we can look back and say, ‘Man, if we had done that one thing different, that was a big play right there.’ We know we’re close. No one is giving up on the running game. We know we’re going to have a good season with it.”
Indeed, it’s far too early for the Falcons (2-1) to abandon a part of their game that played a huge role in last year’s surprising run to the playoffs. And the fact that they head into their bye week with a winning record lessens the urgency to make any major changes.
But there’s no denying the cold, hard numbers: Atlanta ranks 23rd in the league in rushing average at 92.3 yards per game — a huge drop from last year’s 152.7 that placed second in the league, trailing only the New York Giants. The Falcons’ average per carry is off by a full yard, dipping from 4.4 to 3.4. Only six teams have averaged less per play when running the ball.
“I actually think we might be trying too hard,” said Mughelli, the team’s bruising fullback. “Last year, we were more relaxed. It was us against the world. We didn’t have anybody really worrying about us. This year, we knew we had expectations, especially having Michael, a Pro Bowl running back. We want to have those huge 200- and 300-yard games every week. It’s just not going to happen that way. Teams know that’s our strength and they’re going to do what they can to negate that.”
Indeed, Turner was a one-man wrecking crew in his first season as a full-time starter, ranking second in the league with 1,699 yards. He set a team record with 17 touchdowns and averaged 4.5 yards per carry.
Through three games this year, Turner is 12th in the league at a modest 75.3 yards per game — a pace that would translate to just over 1,200 yards — and his average per carry has slipped to 3.5.
“You do get a little frustrated,” Turner said, “but I’ve got to stay positive, stay focused. I know my time will come one day. Hopefully it will be the next game, sooner rather than later. But it’s the NFL. You’re not going to run for over 200 yards every week. I’ve just got to be patient. It’ll come around.”
Teams often stack the box against the Falcons, putting their strong safety closer to the line to guard against the run. Then again, opponents were doing the very same thing a year ago when it became apparent Turner was the real deal, breaking off one 100-yard game after another.
Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff knew he had to take some heat off the backfield — that’s why he dealt a second-round pick to Kansas City for one of the greatest tight ends ever, Tony Gonzalez. But, even though Gonzalez already has 13 catches and a pair of touchdowns, the passing game hasn’t been quite as dynamic as the Falcons would have hoped, especially after they made holdout Roddy White one of the highest-paid receivers in the NFL.
White has 15 catches for 119 yards, his reception average of 7.9 yards ranking a dismal 206th in the league, down in the territory populated mostly by running backs and tight ends. The other receiver, Michael Jenkins, has made more out of his 12 catches (152 yards), but has yet to score a TD.
Which brings us back to the running game.
No matter how well the Falcons throw, they know their bread-and-butter is what happens on the ground.
“That’s something we’re going to address,” coach Mike Smith said. “People are going to try to defend us in different ways. Each week is going to be different. We have to be able to improvise and adjust to how people are going to defend us. In regards to the running game, that’s definitely something we want to do better.”
Help could be on the way.
No. 2 running back Jerious Norwood missed the last game and most of the previous one after suffering his second concussion in less than a month. He was cleared to get back on the field during the off week and expects to back up Turner when the Falcons face the San Francisco 49ers on Oct. 11.
The speedy Norwood has more big-play potential than the 250-something-pound Turner, a bowling ball of a back who does most of his work between the tackles. The Falcons used that change of pace to full advantage in 2008, but Norwood has barely played this season.
“It’s still early in the year,” Norwood said. “We’ve got plenty of time to get it together.”
Clearly, the Falcons feel they should be able to run the ball, no matter how many defenders stack the line. They’re not giving up on it, that’s for sure.
“Everybody knows the capability we have, knows what we can do,” McClure said. “To not be able to do it the first three weeks like we wanted is frustrating. But I think the guys out there on the field know we can get it done. We’re ready for that breakout game.”