FLOWERY BRANCH — As much as Pro Bowl running back Michael Turner appreciates his five offensive linemen in Atlanta, Harvey Dahl and Tyson Clabo have a special place in his heart.
Dahl and Clabo, a pair of undrafted free agents, play with a nasty edge that can wear down the Falcons’ opponents over four quarters.
What Turner loves is knowing their eagerness extends into the secondary, so it was no coincidence that the majority of his 1,699 rushing yards — second last year only to Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson — came from holes Dahl and Clabo opened from the right side.
"One of the biggest things we focus on here is playing ‘til the whistle," Turner said Monday. "That’s the whole thing behind it, really."
A primary focus in training camp this year for left guard Justin Blalock and left tackle Sam Baker is to match the intensity of Dahl and Clabo. Falcons offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and line coach Paul Boudreau want Turner and No. 2 running back Jerious Norwood to find just as much open space available on the left side.
"I think the more they play together and the see what’s expected of them, a little more (responsibility) is added to them," said Todd McClure, Atlanta’s 11th-year center. "I think you’ll see more of it from the left side this year. They saw the success we had with the way the right side played."
Several factors contributed to the Falcons’ offensive overhaul that helped Atlanta surprise the league with an 11-5 record and a wild-card playoff appearance:
Matt Ryan excelled as a rookie quarterback and followed Mularkey’s mandate to get the ball out of the pocket quickly. Enforcing that mindset, combined with Boudreau’s technical teachings for precise hand and foot placement, resulted in just 17 sacks.
Atlanta gave up 47 sacks in both 2007 and ‘06.
"We had a young quarterback coming into the league," Boudreau said. "They’re going to try to rattle and hit him. ... But with our guys, giving up 17, our philosophy was that was maybe 15 too many."
The stocky, durable Turner bulled over opponents for 17 rushing touchdowns, a single-season franchise record, while leading the NFL in carries (376) and gains of 10 yards or more (45).
"I don’t think you want to limit the carries Michael gets or all the touches Jerious gets, but if they’re going to get hit five yards downfield by those little DBs, that means we need to hustle a little bit harder, then that’s five less hits they’re going to have," Boudreau said. "As far as yards after first contact is concerned, he’s the best that there is around."
Longtime lineman Todd Weiner, who retired this past winter, played through considerable injuries to spell Baker’s absence from a concussion and lower-back surgery that contributed to his making just five starts in eight games.
Baker, a late first-round draft pick last year from Southern Cal, won the left tackle job in camp. Blalock, a second-round pick out of Texas in 2007, started 17 games, including the playoff loss at Arizona.
Both are intellectual, soft-spoken types, but they often need reminding not to over-think their jobs.
"It’s a complicated game sometimes," Baker said. "But it’s also simple. The important thing is to find the right balance and just do your job the best you can."
Dahl believes he and Clabo struck a chord with Boudreau by doing exactly what they were told.
Play nasty football, not dirty football.
"Yeah, I think that’s fair to say," Dahl said. "I try to take it to those guys and be as physical as I can, so if you want to call it that, it’s great."
Boudreau strongly disfavors verbal confrontations with opponents because doing so usually leads to unsportsmanlike penalties and damage the offense’s rhythm.
"We’re trying to establish something here," he said. "We haven’t arrived. We’ve got a lot more to prove."NOTES: Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff indicated that the team is still working on getting Pro Bowl receiver Roddy White into camp. White, who’s in the final year of his contract, is holding out for a new deal and is being fined $15,888 a day under the terms the players’ union negotiated with owners in the NFL collective bargaining agreement. ... In their fifth practice of camp, the Falcons wore full pads Monday morning for the first time. Coach Mike Smith said players won’t "go live" and tackle to the ground until Friday, when they’ll scrimmage at Brookwood High School in nearby Snellville.