FLOWERY BRANCH — Michael Turner has resumed his role as Atlanta's Mr. Dependable.
The Falcons running back is over a 1,000-yards again, though Sunday's visit to Carolina provides a reminder of the game that derailed Turner's 2009 season and made this year's comeback necessary.
Turner suffered a high ankle sprain in the Falcons' loss at Carolina last season. He was on pace for a successful year before the injury but limped through the rest of the season, able to play in only parts of two games.
It was a frustrating injury for Turner after his breakthrough 2008 season, when he led Atlanta with 1,699 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns. His production was cut in half last year, prompting some to question if he had been overworked in 2008 and would ever again be a top back.
Turner was determined to set himself up for a healthy 2010 season. The process began with his renewed commitment to his offseason conditioning program.
Quarterback Matt Ryan says Turner's teammates took notice.
"He certainly was in here working hard and I think guys saw that and guys responded to that," Ryan said Wednesday. "He's one of the leaders on this football team and he set the tone for how we needed to work in the offseason. I think that hard work has shwn up this year."
Turner topped 1,000 yards rushing for the season in last week's win at Tampa Bay. He has rushed for seven touchdowns in the last six games to help the Falcons (10-2) claim the NFC's best record.
"It's a big thing," Turner said of his return to top form. "I just wanted to come back and be consistent on this team and still be productive. The team needs me here. We need everybody on this team. If everybody stays healthy, we'll be fine."
Turner has six 100-yard games this season, including four in the last six games. He ranks fifth in the NFL with 1,062 yards rushing.
Since signing with Atlanta as a free agent from San Diego before the 2008 season, Turner's 35 rushing touchdowns rank second in the league, behind Adrian Peterson's 39.
Falcons coach Mike Smith said Wednesday he blames himself for trying to bring Turner back too quickly last season, leading to the big back hurting his ankle again.
"Michael, I would think, really had a good season last year until the injury, and I think I made a mistake in terms of bringing him back too soon," Smith said. "I think it was a very good learning experience for me as a head coach in terms of probably bringing him back too early, and unfortunately he reinjured his ankle."
Smith said he had "no doubt" Turner would have a successful comeback this year.
"Michael, I think, is one of the toughest running backs in the league, and when he's healthy he's tough to handle," Smith said.
Turner said he wasn't bothered by speculation after last season that he wouldn't return to his 2008 form.
"I was just trying to stay healthy," he said. "That was my main concern. I was productive last year before I got hurt. It wasn't like I was having a terrible season."
Turner is sometimes overshadowed on the Falcons' offense.
Ryan is being mentioned in MVP discussions. Two-time Pro Bowl pick Roddy White has continued to emerge while leading the league with 91 catches.
Turner doesn't command as much attention, but other coaches know the big back's quiet production is key to the Falcons' ball-control scheme.
"Turner is back to churning out yards like he did a couple years ago," Carolina coach John Fox said Wednesday. "So offensively they're scoring points and possessing the ball. That's the way you win in this league."