FLOWERY BRANCH — Michael Turner used to be Mr. Reliable for the Atlanta Falcons.
Hand off the ball and watch him churn out the yards.
But the big back's production is way down this season, a change of direction that was planned from the start but has been more pronounced than anyone expected. Even Turner conceded Wednesday he didn't expect his carries to be reduced so significantly.
"It's a mental challenge" he said. "But there's not anything I can do about it. Just go out there and play my role, do whatever it takes to help this team win."
To his credit, Turner hasn't complained at all about having a lesser role in the offense, at least not publicly. But, at age 30, he scoffs at those who say he's all washed up.
"I don't feel any older," he insisted. "I still feel fresh. I probably feel fresher that last year, actually."
Even so, there's no denying that Turner is no longer regarded as one of the NFL's elite running backs. He's on pace to gain about 900 yards, far off the what he did his first four seasons in Atlanta.
Turner rushed for a career-best 1,699 yards in 2008, and more than 1,300 yards each of the last two seasons. The only time he was held to less than 1,000 yards in Atlanta was 2009, when he missed five games and parts of two others with injuries.
Coach Mike Smith made it clear at the beginning of the year he wanted to reduce Turner's workload, especially with a new offensive coordinator, Dirk Koetter, coming on board. The Falcons knew they had to do a better job taking advantage of their myriad weapons in the passing game: quarterback Matt Ryan, receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones, not to mention Hall of Famer-to-be Tony Gonzalez at tight end.
In addition, Atlanta wanted to expand the role of second-year back Jacquizz Rodgers, who at 5-foot-6 and 188 pounds is more of a darting, breakaway threat than the plodding Turner.
Still, Turner has admittedly been caught off guard to some degree. He's averaging just over 14 carries a game, down from nearly 19 a year ago and far off the pace he set during his Atlanta debut in '08, when he carried the ball a staggering 23.5 times per contest.
Asked if he knew what was coming, Turner chose his words carefully.
"Uhh, maybe not as much," he said. "But it's been talked about for months. It's not like this is a total surprise or they caught me off guard with it. I've just to deal with it. Plus, we've got a good weapon in Jacquizz. They want to get him on the field as much as possible."
Rodgers has rushed for 295 yards, averaging 4.1 per carry, and he's more of a threat as a receiver (43 catches, 327 yards). Turner has rushed for 689 yards, but his yards per carry are down to 3.7 — and, more troubling, he's averaged less than 3 yards in six games. There are times when the 247-pound back looks downright glacial getting to the hole, which has exposed the weaknesses of the guys up front, a group that has never been ranked among the NFL's top lines.
Turner always felt he was at his best when he ran the ball at least 20 times. Last week, he got it seven times for 14 yards in a 30-20 loss to Carolina.
"I think I get more of a rhythm" with more carries, Turner said. "Not just me, but the offensive line and the fullbacks, too."
Despite Turner's drop-off, the Falcons (11-2) have already clinched the NFC South and hope to move a step closer to home-field advantage when they host the New York Giants (8-5) on Sunday.
The success of the team has made his disappointing season — which also included a DUI arrest — a little easier to take.
"I've just got to go out there and grind," Turner said. "One team, one goal. The main thing is winning a Super Bowl. This is the way the coaches feel is the best chance for us to win the Super Bowl."
With only one year left on his contract, Turner's tenure in Atlanta could be winding down.
It's certainly not farfetched to envision the Falcons going after another running back — perhaps in the draft — to pair with Rodgers.
But Ryan, for one, believes that Turner still has some effective days ahead of him.
"Mike has been a great player here for a long time," Ryan said. "He's still had some unbelievable runs this year. He's just not done it as routinely as he's done it in the past. That can be for a lot of different reasons."
Smith agreed, stressing that Atlanta's troubles running the ball — especially in short-yardage situations — aren't entirely the fault of Turner. The Falcons rank a dismal 28th in rushing, averaging just under 87 yards per outing.
"I don't think there's a marketable difference in terms of what Mike has been able to do," the coach said. "We've just been very inconsistent running the football. When we've had to run it, we've been able to run the football. But we've been inconsistent in blocking and in executing the run game. I think that's one of the reasons our numbers are down."
For now, there's no going back to the way things used to be.
"We're in transition right now," Turner said. "People are used to the way we did things in the old days here. But it's new now. Everybody needs to adjust. Not just me. Everybody."
Notes: S William Moore missed another day of practice. He has been sidelined since injuring a hamstring in the home win over New Orleans on Nov. 29. ... CB Asante Samuel, who dressed but didn't play in Carolina because of a right lingering shoulder injury, took part in practice on a limited basis. ... Also sitting out practice were DT Jonathan Babineaux (ribs) and WR Roddy White (knee), but both are expected to play against the Giants.