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No nicknames, but coaches see potential in running back duo
Falcons running back Michael Turner - photo by The Associated Press

FLOWERY BRANCH - Forget a southern version of Thunder and Lightning, at least for now.

Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood just want to punish opponents for the Atlanta Falcons this season.

If they earn nicknames as a tandem of running backs, that’s fine, but Turner and Norwood have worked together just two days in mini-camp.

They still must endure organized team workouts next month, the oppressive heat of training camp in midsummer and four preseason games before the Sept. 7 opener against Detroit.

"It’s going to be a dangerous backfield," Turner said Sunday. "It’s going to work out well for us because we’re two totally different kinds of backs. That’s going to give the defense some trouble."

The New York Giants used a two-back attack with Tiki Barber (Lightning) and Ron Dayne (Thunder) to win the 2000 NFC championship, but Turner and Norwood are essentially career backups seeking to prove their abilities.

Expectations are higher for Turner, who left San Diego as a free agent and signed a six-year contract with approximately $15 million in guarantees. He earned a huge payday for a three-year veteran with one career start behind former league MVP LaDainian Tomlinson, but new Falcons coach Mike Smith believes Atlanta made a wise investment.

"When you go to tackle him, it looks like it’s going to be knees and helmet because there’s nothing to hit," Smith said. "He’s also a guy who can go the distance. He’s had three runs over 70 yards the last three years. People don’t realize he can really run once he gets in the open."

Norwood, who spent his first two seasons playing behind Warrick Dunn, also seeks a more defined role. He and Turner could share the backfield in some sets, but the depth chart calls for Norwood to work in a supporting role again this year.

"I’ll do whatever the team needs me to do," said Norwood, who averaged 6.0 yards on 103 attempts last year. "You just have to keep working in this league because anything can happen and you have to be ready to perform."

If the Falcons effectively use fullback Ovie Mughelli to open holes for Turner and Norwood, Smith believes his tandem could compare favorably to Jacksonville’s 1-2 punch of Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew.

"When you have that kind of combination, I think it creates problems for the defense that’s used to trying to tackle a certain style of runner," said Smith, the Jaguars’ defensive coordinator over the last five years. "Then the next play, or the next series, you’ve got to go tackle a different kind of guy."

Atlanta wants to regain some swagger in a running game that nearly collapsed last year after leading the league in rushing from 2004-06.

Michael Vick, the only quarterback in history to rush for 1,000 yards in a single season, landed in federal prison for his role in a dogfighting scandal. That was a big blow, but coach Bobby Petrino hardly helped when he scrapped the zone-blocking schemes that helped the Falcons advance to the ‘04 NFC title game.

Abundant injuries on the line hurt, too. Dunn’s production plummeted to just 3.2 yards per carry, and Norwood, an explosive runner, never got enough chances.

Now under the direction of coordinator Mike Mularkey, Atlanta will depend on a physical rushing attack, but there’s uncertainty on the line.

Neither tackle position is settled. Rookie Sam Baker, a first-round draft pick from Southern Cal, will try to beat out Pat McCoy for the left-side job. Todd Weiner, the Falcons’ right-side starter since 2002, has been held out of minicamp to recover from knee surgery. Tyson Clabo, a former undrafted free agent, is currently No. 1 on the depth chart.

"We’re still in the process of figuring out what those guys can do," Mularkey said, "and we’re putting them in all different schemes, man and zone and gap schemes."

Mularkey, a former head coach in Buffalo and two-time coordinator in Pittsburgh and Miami, believes it’s too early to make any declarations about Atlanta’s running game.

So don’t ask him to conjure up Thunder-and-Lightning comparisons when he has yet to see his offense take a snap in full pads. Mularkey did acknowledge, however, that Turner and Norwood have impressed him thus far.

"I’ve been with some guys who don’t run and hit the hole as fast as they should, so now when game time comes, they don’t get a real good impression of where that hole’s going to be, where that fit’s going to be," Mularkey said. "Our guys’ practice tempo has made it fast enough to simulate really what’s going to go on in a game."

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