Flowery Branch – A lot of folks are down on Michael Turner. He’s averaging 2.6 yards per carry, which means if you handed him the ball four times in a row he’d make a first down, but you’d need a measurement to prove it. He also managed to sully one of the sweeter moments this franchise has lately known by getting arrested for DUI on the way home.
Comments left on AJC.com blogs suggest that Turner should be benched, cut or traded within the next half-hour, but none of the above is up to happen anytime soon. Because the Falcons, like it or not, still need Michael Turner.
Their offense is changing, yes, but it isn’t changing so much that it will have no further use for yards rushing. On the contrary, the more you throw — and the Falcons under Dirk Koetter have and will throw more than they did under Mike Mularkey — the greater the opportunity is to run. We saw it happen Monday night: The Falcons deployed five defensive backs on nearly every snap to counter Peyton Manning, and Willis McGahee ran for 113 yards.
Defenses will do the same against the Falcons’ offense. Heck, they’re doing it already. “That’s one of the things that happens when you put that personnel group [three wide receivers] on the field,” quarterback Matt Ryan said Wednesday. “You spread out the secondary. That’s something we plan for, something we look to exploit.”
To date, they haven’t. The Falcons are tied for 26th in the 32-team NFL in yards rushing. (Meanwhile, Ryan leads the league in passing efficiency.) To their credit, they’re 2-0. But Victory No. 2 was imperiled because the Falcons couldn’t do against Denver what coach Mike Smith insists his team must do, which is run the ball when it needs to be run.
Up 27-14 with 11:48 remaining, the ideal would have been to hand the ball to Turner and let him pound. The Falcons handed it to him on first and saw him gain a yard. On their next possession, they tried the same tack and saw him gain three yards. With 3:25 left and the lead down to six points, the Falcons handed it to Turner twice. He gained four yards on first down, one yard on second. If not for Ryan’s nerveless third-down completion to Julio Jones, this sweet franchise moment might have become just another Falcons whiff.
Some will put the blame on Koetter/Smith for Getting Too Conservative With A Lead, but that’s the way of the neo-NFL: You throw to get ahead and run to stay there. If you keep throwing it every down when you’re in front, you don’t burn the clock and you run the risk of getting intercepted and blowing your lead. But if the Falcons can’t line up and push somebody backward when circumstances mandate, they’re going to blow some leads that way.
No, the lack of a running game isn’t all Turner’s fault. Backups Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling totaled a whopping five yards on four carries, and there didn’t seem to be many holes until Turner popped the clinching 15-yarder on the night’s final handoff. To that point, the longest gain by a Falcon had been a 7-yard Ryan scramble.
Said Ryan: “We need to keep chipping away. We’re close.”
Also this: “[Running the ball] is something we want to do better. But it’s early.”
Then, speaking of Turner: “He’s proven he can do it. He’s consistent.”
Over his first four seasons here, Turner averaged 1,320 yards on 4.4 yards per carry. Through two games he has 74 yards. The Falcons hinted over the offseason that they wanted the big man, who’s 30, to accept a slightly lesser role, but doing less isn’t the same as doing nothing. He’s still the feature back. (Rodgers hasn’t proved he can run between the tackles, and Snelling is a career backup.) He’s still the Falcon most apt to get the toughest yards.
Addressing the media for the first time since his arrest, Turner apologized to the organization and to fans and expressed what sounded like sincere contrition. “It was a bad decision on my part,” he said, and then: “I don’t think anybody is more disappointed than I am.”
Michael Turner can’t take back the hours that led to his early-morning arrest, but he can show that there’s still spring in those massive legs. Even this Koetting-edge (sorry, couldn’t resist) offense will have moments when it needs the Burner to churn. He doesn’t have to gain 1,000 yards anymore; he just has to bang out the necessary ones. Like it or not, no other Falcon can do what he does.