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Out of LT's shadows, Turner shines for Atlanta
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Falcons vs. Chargers

When: 4:05 p.m. Sunday

Where: San Diego, Calif.

TV, radio: FOX (WAGA-5); 550-AM, 92.9 FM

Web site:

ATLANTA — Growing up on the tough streets of North Chicago, Michael Turner learned a thing or two about staying locked on a goal.

It would have been easy to take the wrong path, to fall victim to those familiar inner-city pitfalls — drugs, crime, hopelessness — before he ever had a chance for a better life.

But Turner knew what he wanted, and he was willing to keep plugging along until he got there. Patience, you see, was something he never lacked. Let others go for the quick hit. He was thinking long-term.

"There was temptation all the time, because you didn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel," he recalled. "You just had to stay focused, just stay with it."

Those lessons have served Turner well in his professional life.

After sitting on the San Diego bench for the last four years, watching a likely Hall of Famer show him how it’s done, Turner finally got his chance to shine with the Atlanta Falcons.

Boy, has he ever taken advantage of it.

"He wanted to show people exactly who Michael Turner is and what he can do," said Falcons fullback Ovie Mughelli, whose main job is blocking for him. "He knows his potential, what he can do, how much of a devastating back he can be. But he didn’t have a chance to show people that."

He has in Atlanta.

"Turner the Burner" is the NFL’s third-leading rusher, needing only 11 games to reach 1,000 yards for the first time in his career. He scored four touchdowns last weekend in a victory over Carolina — tying a franchise record — and he’s got 13 TDs on the season, which leaves him just one shy of Jamal Anderson’s team record.

Most important, Turner has set the offensive tone for one of the league’s most surprising teams. The Falcons (7-4) are one game out of first in the NFC South and battling for a playoff spot in what was supposed to be merely the start of a major rebuilding project.

Yep, there’s a new Michael in town. With each bruising carry by the somewhat undersized (Turner is only 5-foot-10) but freakishly strong (he’s as sturdy a 244-pounder as you’ll ever see), the Falcons put that other Michael, the one named Vick, a little farther in the rearview mirror.

"I’m just taking advantage of my opportunity," said Turner, who’s put up five 100-yard games and 1,088 yards overall with an NFL-leading 251 carries. "I never had an opportunity, so people didn’t really know what I could do."

He started in a bit of hole, even after putting up some truly staggering numbers at Northern Illinois. As a freshman, he once ran the ball 52 times in a game. He shattered the school record for all-purpose yards (6,038). He was the nation’s second-leading rusher as both a junior (1,915 yards) and a senior (1,648).

But NFL scouts weren’t impressed with the level of competition in the Mid-American Conference. They wondered if Turner had enough speed to play on every down. When the draft rolled around, Turner’s name wasn’t called until the fifth round; 153 players went ahead of him, seven of them running backs.

As if that wasn’t enough to stunt his potential growth, Turner was drafted by the Chargers, who already had a pretty fair runner in LaDainian Tomlinson.

Watching the rookie in practice, it didn’t take long for L.T. to wonder why Turner didn’t go higher — much higher — in the draft.

"That was definitely something I scratched my head about," Tomlinson said. "Maybe it was the conference he played in. In this league, they’re big on the talent you played against in college. I think that had a lot to do with it."

Turner took only 20 handoffs as a rookie and never averaged more than about six carries a game in San Diego, biding his time on those thankless special teams. The Chargers were L.T.’s team, and no fifth-round pick was going to cut into his playing time.

But Turner got on the field enough to show flashes of his potential. He broke off runs of 83, 74 and 73 yards, which ranked among the top 11 in San Diego history. He had an eye-catching average of 5.5 yards per carry. And when Tomlinson hurt his knee during the playoffs, his understudy stepped in and rushed for 71 yards on 17 carries in an upset of the defending Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts.

Even though the Chargers lost to unbeaten New England in the AFC championship game, Turner made enough of an impression to land a six-year, $34.5 million contract from the Falcons. He was guaranteed $15 million and a chance to be an NFL starter for the first time.

Not that he didn’t face more doubts.

"I know when he got here, people said, ‘I don’t know if he can be a full-time back. He’s never had that responsibility. He doesn’t have enough speed,’" Mughelli said. "Well, he’s quieted all his critics."

Turner took care of that in his very first game for the Falcons. He rushed for a franchise-record 220 yards in a victory over Detroit and really hasn’t slowed since.

On Sunday, he’ll get a chance to face his former team and the running back he once looked up to when the Falcons travel to San Diego (4-7), a team that was touted as a serious playoff contender but has lost one close game after another.

Before the season, "I noticed we were going to play ‘em," Turner said, breaking into a husky laugh. "It’s not a revenge game or anything. But it’s one of those games you knew was going to be pretty fun."

Indeed, there’s no hard feelings on either side. Tomlinson considers his former backup a little brother. Turner praises L.T. for teaching him the right way to play the game.

"Every day, he approached it like it was going to be his last," Turner said. "He’s very professional in everything he does. That’s one thing I really picked up on."

Still, he had to escape L.T.’s shadow if he was ever going to stand out. In Atlanta, Turner has been a perfect fit in a run-oriented offense that needed someone to eat up yards, keep the clock moving and allow rookie quarterback Matt Ryan to ease into a starting role.

Turner is primarily a between-the-tackles runner, lowering his shoulder pads and daring someone to take him down on the first lick. He has been especially effective out of Atlanta’s zone-blocking schemes, which allow him to pick the gap he wants to run through.

"You’ve just got to give him a crease," center Todd McClure said. "If you give him a crease, there may be a defender sitting there, but it’s going to hard to bring him down one-on-one. He’s so powerful. When he hits that hole, he hits it hard."

The Falcons wisely decided to give Turner plenty of leeway once they recognized his innate knack of finding the right hole to run through.

"Our running back coach (Gerald Brown) tells Mike all the time, ‘We’re not going to tell you how to run. We’ll just tell you where to start the run,’" Mughelli said. "After that, he makes his own decisions. You don’t mess with a good thing by trying to overcoach."

Turner also has shown some nifty moves on the outside. Against the Panthers, he cut to his left just past the line and found himself face-to-face with Ken Lucas. The cornerback braced himself for the expected hit, but Turner shifted his hips, buckled Lucas’ knees and went on by for a big gain.

For the most part, though, Turner prefers to run over would-be tacklers, not around them. He’s like a boxer who wears down his opponent through the early rounds, then puts him away at the end.

"When you do it early in the game, by the time you get to the fourth quarter, people are just whiffing at you," receiver Roddy White said. "They don’t really want to tackle you."

Clearly, Turner is a hard guy to bring down, no matter what’s standing in his way.

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