FLOWERY BRANCH – Much of the offseason chatter has been about screen passes and a vertical passing game under new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter.
But the Falcons’ calling card over the past four seasons has been the rushing attack, powered by running back Michael Turner, who has rushed for more than 1,300 yards in three of the past four seasons.
He had 1,340 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. He had 1,371 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2010. In 2008, he rushed for 1,699 yards and 17 touchdowns.
In 2009, he was slowed by a high ankle sprain and rushed for 871 yards and 10 touchdowns in 11 games.
Turner, who caught a career-high 17 passes last season, is embracing change.
“Playing running back is playing running back,” Turner said. “You’ve got to get the tough yards and make explosive plays. There might me a little bit more passing than
normal from what Falcons fans are used to. But you just have to be ready when your name is called.”
Turner had 301 carries last season, 334 in 2010 and 376 in 2008.
“Michael has been our workhorse for a few years,” Running backs coach Gerald Brown said. “We’ve discussed the possibility of making sure that we monitor his reps so that he can stay strong for us, through the season and into December. We feel very good about Jason Snelling and Jacquizz [Rodgers], who have played.”
Turner just chuckled at the notion that his carries will be monitored more closely.
“They always say that,” Turner said.
Turner noted that Koetter’s Jacksonville offense led the league is rushing last season despite having a rookie quarterback and an impotent passing attack.
“I have to take my hat off to [Jacksonville running back Maurice] Jones-Drew for still getting the job done when they say he had no help out there,” Turner said. “We’ve got names across the board here. It gets me excited that he still led the league in rushing and did great things for them without any help.”
Turner said he’s made sense of wide receiver Roddy White’s contention that they need to do less on offense for the unit to improve.
“I understand what Roddy is saying by that,” Turner said. “It’s not all on Roddy. It’s not all on Matt. If we all contribute together or collectively, we are all doing less, but accomplishing more.”
Turner is set to be backed up by Jason Snelling and second-year man Jacquizz Rodgers. The Falcons have high hopes that Rodgers can handle an increased load.
Turner is fine with splitting up some of the action with Rodgers, who will have the benefit of the offseason program this season.
”He got basically thrown into the fire right away,” Turner said. “This will slow things down for him a little bit and he’ll get into a groove. He’ll be ready to go this year.”
Rodgers senses that he could play a big role in the screen game.
“Right now, everybody is getting a shot at running screens,” Rodgers said. “I’m looking forward to being a part of that. Coach Dirk (Koetter) is huge on running the screen, so we have a lot of screens in store.”
Rodgers played in all 16 games last season. He had 57 rushes for 205 yards and a touchdown. He also caught 21 passes for 188 yards and a touchdown.
“What he was able to do with not having an offseason, we thought was really good,” Brown said. “With an offseason, we think it can do nothing but make him a better player. Even last year, when we game-planned, we made sure that Quizz had some touches because he can do some things in the run and pass game. He’s an explosive player and we’ll try to get him the the ball.”
The Falcons released former Pro Bowler Ovie Mughelli over the offseason and will have a new fullback. Bradie Ewing, Mike Cox and Lee Meisner are competing to replace Mughelli.
“Last year, Cox ended up playing from the Indy game on,” Brown said. “He’s an NFL veteran. Ewing has done some really good things since he’s been here. We are happy about the competition that we have at the position right now.”
Turner, who turned 30 in February, hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down.
“He’s been looking really good,” Brown said. “Physically, he’s running the ball well. He’s right on pace, where he should be. We expect the same thing that he’s been giving us. . . Mike is looking good.”
–D. Orlando Ledbetter, The Atlanta Falcons beat blog