By Michael Cunningham
FLOWERY BRANCH — If the Falcons are moving past their days of pounding away at opponents with running back Michael Turner then it could mean they are just catching up to the times.
The NFL’s era of feeding the ball to one big featured back have faded in favor of spreading the ball around to multiple backs with different styles. For the Falcons, their 24-23 victory at Tampa Bay might have been the beginning of their full embrace of that trend.
Jacquizz Rodgers played 31 offensive snaps against the Buccaneers compared to Turner’s 23. With the exception of Atlanta’s lopsided victory at San Diego, when Rodgers got extra playing time with the game in hand, it was the first time this season Turner didn’t get the most snaps among the running backs.
“We feel like Jacquizz is a very viable option to carry the football and has done a nice job for us,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “It has become more of the vogue thing to do, to have a ‘running back by committee.’”
Atlanta’s victory against Tampa Bay showed the potential benefits of using multiple backs.
Jason Snelling had three catches for 33 yards, Rodgers had a 32-yard catch and a 20-yard run among his 79 total yards and Turner powered in for a three-yard touchdown for one highlight in a 13-carry, 17-yard day.
“For one thing, it keeps the defense guessing,” Snelling said. “We are similar but different styles of running and what we can do.”
The upshot is that the Falcons are running the ball with less frequency and, when they do run, Turner is getting it less often.
In each of Turner’s three previous full seasons in Atlanta (he missed five games in 2009), his rushing attempts were remarkably consistent: 67 percent of the team’s carries in 2008, 67 percent in 2010, and 66.4 percent in 2012. This season, Turner has 62.7 percent of Atlanta’s carries.
Earlier in the season Turner said he’s a rhythm runner who needs a lot of carries to be effective. Now he said he’s learned to stay focused and be ready when he does get his chances.
“I am pretty much used to my role now,” Turner said. “It’s been an adjustment, no doubt about that. I’ve just got to do what I’ve got to do.”
Turner’s efficiency is at an all-time low: He’s gained 3.5 yards per carry this season and, without dramatic improvement in production, is on pace for the worst mark of his career. His previous low was 4.1 yards per carry in 2010.
Smith said he believes Turner still can be an efficient runner even with fewer carries.
“I certainly do,” he said. “We have stated from the very beginning that we were not going to look up at the end of the season and see that one back has 300 carries. That’s not the way this offense is built now.”
With 60 carries, Rodgers already has surpassed his total of 57 from his rookie season of 2011. At 5-6 and 196 pounds it’s not clear how many carries he could withstand though he’s certainly shown a willingness to run inside.
“I can run between the tackles as well as run outside,” said Rodgers, Atlanta’s fifth-round selection in the 2011 draft. “I’ve been playing running back all my life so its’ a natural instinct. Once you get it, just run tough.”
Falcons fullback Mike Cox said Rodgers is a “strong dude” for his size.
“Quick in space but he also runs hard [so] it takes more than one person to bring him down,” Cox said.
Rodgers’ performance against the Bucs earned him notice among experts scrutinizing Atlanta’s lackluster running game, with NFL Network analyst Deion Sanders going so far as to say: “Jacquizz Rodgers needs to be the starter [because] he gives the Falcons a lot more production.”
ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski praised Rodgers for his ability to make plays in space, especially in the passing game, but noted that he’s “not a power runner.”
“They’ve got to be careful they don’t get too far away from their core values of running the football,” Jaworski said.
Snelling said the Falcons feel the same way.
“We are still striving to run the ball and be a physical running team,” Snelling said. “But we have guys who can do different things: catching screens, catching the ball out of the backfield, short passes. Things like that can work as runs, too. Just having that diversity with our backs can help the offense a lot.”
OTHER RECENT STORIES