Michael Turner is not the same running back he was when he arrived in Atlanta. He’s not even the same back he was last season.
Turner’s on the wrong side of 30 and has visibly lost a step—an explosive burst that fueled three 300-plus carry seasons and more than 1,300 yards rushing in three of his last four seasons.
Through six games in 2012, Turner has 84 carries for 357 yards. He’s on pace to reach 952 yards at season’s end on 224 carries.
It was Atlanta’s philosophy from the get-go to limit Turner’s carries, but a 25 percent reduction seems like too much of an adjustment from a ball carrier who led the NFC in rushing in 2011.
Sure, the NFL is a pass-happy league and this Falcons’ offense is loaded with weapons for an aerial assault. And this drop-off in touches was designed to keep Turner fresh throughout the season. So a reduction like this should come as no surprise, especially with Turner coming off an 11-carry, 33-yard performance Sunday against the Oakland Raiders.
It may surprise you, however, that Turner’s diminishing burst isn’t even the main reason he’s not performing as well as usual.
Most of the blame lies with the Falcons’ offensive line, which is failing him.
While much effort in the offseason was placed on protecting Matt Ryan—look no further than the first two Atlanta draft picks being offensive linemen—there was also concern and a fifth-round draft pick used on fullback Bradie Ewing to make sure this offense could push people around in short-yardage situations.
The Falcons did not fix their short-yardage woes.
Of Turner’s 11 carries Sunday, six were held to two or fewer yards. There were three plays, in particular, that showed the fault doesn’t lie with Turner, but the guys blocking—or should I say not blocking—in front of him.
Second Quarter, 10:28
Atlanta has the ball on Oakland’s 2-yard line and it’s 1st-and-10. The Falcons lined up in their 11 Personnel with Turner in the backfield by himself, two receivers and a tight end on the right and a receiver split out wide to the left.
Before Turner could even get the ball, Andre Carter and Richard Seymour had already pushed center Todd McClure and tackle Sam Baker a yard-and-a-half deep into the backfield.
Turner was dragged down for a 2-yard loss. That play had nothing to do with Turner losing a step or not being able to burst through the line. It was doomed because Oakland’s defensive linemen penetrated into the backfield.
This was one of those goal-line situations that Atlanta wanted to fix in the offseason. Head coach Mike Smith is very run-oriented. He's always believed that the ability to gaining short yardage should be his offense's forte. That’s not the case right now with this team.
Third Quarter, 13:28
Atlanta has the ball on its 21-yard line and it’s 1st-and-10. The Falcons lined up in 21 Personnel with Turner as the deep back and fullback Lousaka Polite in front of him in the backfield. The receivers are split wide, one on each side.
When the ball was snapped, Matt Shaughnessy popped tackle Sam Baker hard and Baker failed to maintain contact, allowing Shaughnessy a free path into the backfield, where he dropped Turner for a 3-yard loss.
At the end of the play, both Baker and Tyson Clabo, the Falcons' other tackle, were on the ground in the backfield, their blocking assignments on top of Turner in a heap.
This is yet another play where Turner didn’t have the time or the space to make any kind of push forward or a move to cut back because there were too many Oakland linemen in the backfield.
Third Quarter, 4:19
This is the possession that everyone seems to remember, and rightfully so. A John Abraham sack and forced fumble, and a subsequent Ray Edwards fumble return had Atlanta in great shape with a 1st-and-goal from the Oakland 2-yard line.
Atlanta tried a pass first and Ryan had to throw the ball out of the end zone because Julio Jones wasn’t open.
On 2nd-and-goal, the Falcons from 11 Personnel gave the ball to Turner, who ran left and didn’t meet opposition in his backfield.
Tight end Tony Gonzalez laid a fantastic block to seal off the defensive line and give Turner an open lane to the end zone.
But Turner was stopped at the goal line by two Oakland defenders, Mile Burris and Tyvon Branch.
This is one situation where possibly a Turner from two years ago might have bulled his way into the end zone. But Burris and Branch popped Turner hard and stopped him.
The problem is, Burris shouldn’t have been there.
Baker’s responsibility was to get into the second level and block Burris. Baker made contact, but Burris shook him off easily and went unobstructed to the point of contact and leveled Turner.
Jason Snelling tried to punch the ball in on third down, but Oakland stopped him at the goal line. Atlanta had to settle for a field goal after failing to get into the end zone on three tries from the 2-yard line.
For many reasons—Atlanta’s pass-first mentality and his age as two examples—Turner shouldn’t get anywhere near 300 carries for the Falcons this season. But he still has the capability to rush for 1,000 yards and be a viable run threat.
There’s nothing better for a powerful passing attack than to have a run threat. Not only does that open up the playbook, but it keeps defenses from focusing on pressuring the quarterback and deep coverage. With the threat that Turner can break off a run at any time, defenses have to respect every possible kind of play.
Until the Falcons’ offensive line can block more effectively for the running game, Turner or Jacquizz Rodgers or Snelling will be at a disadvantage. And so will the Atlanta offense.
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