Atlanta Falcons Spotlight : Return of the Burner

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Atlanta Falcons Spotlight : Return of the Burner
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

It only seems like yesterday that Atlanta Falcons fans waited with baited breath on their heralded but largely unknown free agent running back Michael Turner. The longtime backup in San Diego had produced in small samples before joining a train wreck of a team  in Atlanta.

Bobby Petrino, Michael Vick, and the disgraceful events around that lost season need not repeating here. The Falcons were projected to finish last in the NFC South, the four wins predicted by experts was as much as fans could dream for. Enter rookie quarterback Matt Ryan, a new coaching staff and a gutted defensive roster and it all seemed to be the beginning of a long rebuilding process.

Sixteen games later, and the Atlanta Falcons were the surprise of the season posting a 11-5 record despite some lackluster defensive play. Turner surprised everyone by rumbling for 1,699 yards and was the lynchpin in the new Falcon offense.

Next year would not prove as fortunate, as a high ankle sprain would limit Turner's performance while the Falcons would have to rally to post their first ever back to back winning seasons.

Many experts and pundits fail to mention Turner among the league's elite running backs, as if the past season was a complete condemnation of the man's ability. The "Curse of the 370", injuries on offense and a lack of cohesive blocking in the early stages of last season all may have played a role in Turner's downturn.

Statistically speaking, his season wasn't as bad as many outsiders may believe. In just eight full games, Turner toted the rock 178 times for 871 yards, maintaining his healthy career yards per carry average. By simply extrapolating those numbers for a full season, one could speculate that Turner would have put in another yeah much like his first in Atlanta.

Realistically speaking however, Turner was not as effective as last year as he just seemed to lack the burst and power he showed in his first year. Up and down play along the offensive line, coupled with a rough schedule did not help matters.

In a recent interview with SI.com's Jim Trotter, Turner spoke about the past year and how his conditioning and weight played a huge role.

“If you go back and look at some pictures of me from last year at this time, I probably looked big — a lot bigger than normal. I was heavy, too heavy. It was hard for me to overcome.”

Turner is listed at 250 pounds, but looked and played much heavier than that conservative number. A high ankle sprain would limit his effectiveness and kept him out of five contests.

Turner has shown a leaner meaner side of him this offseason and all reports have him coming in at a very legit 250 pounds. Training camp observers are pointing out some of that burst and power that seemed to be lacking last year, as Turner looks stronger than ever.

Along with a steady plan to reduce playing weight and recover some speed, Turner has also looked into rounding out his game. Focusing on taking more passes out of the backfield, Turner may become a bigger weapon than many are accustomed to him seeing.

I don't know about you guys, but a healthy, slimmer Turner in space would be darn right scary.

The Falcons have also publicly stated that they do not intend on loading up Turner and would like to more evenly distribute the rushing load. A more realistic number would be around the 300 mark, leaving Turner healthy and in sync for hopefully a deep playoff run.

"That doesn't bother me," Turner said about the coaches limiting his touches. "I just want to be ready when my number is called."

With Turner returning healthy and Jason Snelling having a very solid performance last year the Falcons have terrific depth at running back. If Jerious Norwood can manage to stay healthy, and he's given the proper chance this Falcon offense can be a special one this upcoming season.

Turner is in great shape and has sufficiently recovered from the nasty high ankle sprain that was further aggravated against the Jets last year. The offensive line returns with another year together, some added depth and infusion of talent across all positions. Ryan is primed to take the Falcons to the next level, alleviating attention and pressure on the running game.

Turner will return to his Pro Bowl form and then some, which is bad news for the rest of the NFC South.

Projected Season Stats : 310 carries, 1,445 yards, 45 receptions for 456 yards and 15 TD's

Go Falcons

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