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Turner running to possible MVP..


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— The Atlanta Falcons' offensive line does not make every block. It doesn't have to because right behind it is running back Michael Turner blocking for …Michael Turner. "You watch him on film or out there on the field, and it just looks like he is blocking for himself when he gets into the hole," says fellow Falcons running back Jason Snelling. "You can see it on the film. The guys that have bounced off him are getting up real slow. It's like a 300-pound lineman has hit them.

IS TURNER THE MVP? "We call him MARTA. Michael 'The MARTA' Turner."

MARTA is the Atlanta commuter rail that runs on two lines, east-west and north-south. Turner certainly prefers a north-south route in the Falcons offense. He calls it a "downhill" offense because rarely is he asked to make a right or left turn.

Turner's season has been full-speed ahead with very few stops.

After four years as a backup to LaDainian Tomlinson with the San Diego Chargers, Turner, 26, finally has a team and a system that revolves around him. He has a league-high 282 carries and has rushed for 1,208 yards, third most in the NFL.

Turner ran for 120 yards Sunday — the sixth time he's topped the century mark this season — as the Falcons toppled the Chargers in San Diego 22-16, remaining one game back for the NFC South lead. Tomlinson was held to 24 yards.

Turner, who is also tied atop the NFL charts with 13 touchdowns, has helped Falcons rookie quarterback Matt Ryan settle into the league. Atlanta does not lean on Ryan so much that the rookie caves to the demands of the position because Turner is making teams worry about the run first.

Turner's favorite play is a zone read where he can choose the gap to run through with his 244 pounds of force and barrel-sized thighs. What makes him special is his ability to reach the edge and turn upfield with surprising speed. Only four players have more than Turner's eight gallops of 20-plus yards this season.

Other teams saw that potential when Turner hit the free agent market last winter. He says he had other inquiries, which he wouldn't reveal, but made just one visit: Atlanta.

"They wanted me bad," Turner says of his meeting with new coach Mike Smith, new general manager Thomas Dimitroff and owner Arthur Blank. Turner signed a six-year, $34.5 million contract.

Yet some wondered if Turner was worth the money because even though he was known as Michael "The Burner" Turner in college and San Diego, he'd never proved himself as a featured back in the NFL.

But doubts were not new for Turner. He played at Northern Illinois, and the quality of competition there didn't help his draft status (he lasted until the fifth round in 2004).

Turner just shrugs at the suggestion he is something less than a star because he does not have the look of a star such as Tomlinson.

"I didn't really have the opportunity, so people didn't really know what I could do," Turner says.

He has had all the chances he wants in Atlanta, starting in Week 1 when he ran for a franchise-record 220 yards vs. the Detroit Lions.

Turner had just one 100-yard rushing game during the five-week stretch between Oct. 12 and Nov. 16. But he proved he wasn't wearing down in a crucial NFC South victory against the Carolina Panthers on Nov. 23, barreling for 117 yards and four touchdowns.

Turner cannot be bothered by any of the slights, and teammates marvel at his poise and calm. Center Todd McClure says Turner has yet to complain about being a backup in San Diego.

"To complain, that wasn't the right thing to do," Turner says. "I've been through it before. I didn't (play) every game right away at Northern Illinois.

"And what was I going to say? The guy in front of me in San Diego was a Hall of Famer."

The patience at Northern Illinois and in San Diego was learned early. In Chicago, he was one of six brothers, and he had three brothers already involved in football, so his mother made him sit out until the seventh grade. She just couldn't chauffeur that many around at once, so Turner first made his reputation in the streets with pickup games. "Everybody in the neighborhood kept saying you gotta play, you gotta play, but my mom said no," Turner says.

He finally bloomed his junior and senior seasons at North Chicago Community High School. Still, there was not much interest in him from Big Ten schools, and he went to Northern Illinois, where he finished with 4,941 rushing yards.

Now, as a featured back once again, Turner has been productive. He is not all thump, either. He can get light on his toes.

In the 45-28 win vs. Carolina, Panthers defensive back Ken Lucas braced for bulldozing Turner, only to have Turner run by him for 16 yards. "I saw that," Snelling says. "He'll surprise you with his feet."

Turner, of course, is not doing this alone. Atlanta's offensive line, which was supposed to be a liability, has been an asset, displaying such a nasty disposition that defenders clamor to referees about dirty play.

Ryan has played a major role, too, showing consistent development with his downfield passing and preventing defenses from loading eight defenders in the box to stop Turner.

The Falcons' scheme is also a Turner ally. They shift and motion and run no-huddle, and the constant movement can unsettle a defense.

"It's not as complicated as people might think," says Mike Mularkey, the offensive coordinator. "We have the ability to do things multiple ways with motion and shifts, and anything we can do to make defensive players think means they are not able to play fast."

Given how fast Turner has been playing, that's just more bad news for Atlanta opponents.

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