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Falcons' success relies on Turner


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Falcons' success relies on Turner

Alex Marvez

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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga.

After an onslaught of crippling winter weather, this region desperately needs a weekend warm-up.

From a football standpoint, the Atlanta Falcons are in the same sled.

Without a strong performance by running back Michael Turner — aka the Burner — in Saturday night's second-round playoff game against Green Bay, Atlanta's Super Bowl hopes will likely go up in flames.

As much credit as Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan receives for Atlanta's 2010 success, Turner provides the offensive spark. The Packers learned that first-hand during a 20-17 road loss in late November.

Ryan received the bulk of postgame media praise for his customary clutch play. "Matty Ice" led the Falcons to the game-winning field goal in the final minute and improved his career starting record inside the Georgia Dome to 19-1.

But as usual, it was Turner who did the dirty work between the tackles. He helped the Falcons control the clock (31:40 to 28:20) against Green Bay's high-powered offense and opened opportunities in Atlanta's passing game by rushing for 110 yards and one touchdown on 23 carries.

"Ideally, that's where we want to be," Turner told FOXSports.com during a Thursday interview at the team headquarters. "We want to be a run-first team and then pass it, opening it up for everybody else. That's our identity."

Why mess with success?

The Falcons were 12-1 this season in games where Turner rushed for at least 50 yards. Atlanta's only loss in its final 10 games came in Week 16, when the Saints snuffed the Burner (17 carries for 48 yards, 27 of which came on one run). That made it easier for New Orleans to harass Ryan with heavy pressure.

Elements of that same defensive game plan are certain to resonate with the Packers.

"With our offense, they've got to stop the run if they even want to have a chance," Falcons fullback Ovie Mughelli said. "They might load up another (defensive) lineman, bring a safety down, stunt their line to give us trouble. Whatever they do, we feel like we have the scheme and personnel to take care of it and do what we do best: run the ball."

Just two other running backs (Houston's Arian Foster and Kansas City's Jamaal Charles) gained more rushing yards than the 1,371 that Turner amassed during the regular season. His 334 carries led the league and 12 rushing touchdowns ranked behind only Foster, Pittsburgh's Rashard Mendenhall and New England's BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Turner could have scored twice more in Atlanta's final two games but he lost fumbles inside the red zone, a mistake he insists is a fluke rather than the start of a serious problem.

Turner thrived in 2010 despite being the focus of opposing defensive game plans. Turner said the only team that tried to play Atlanta "straight up" was Cleveland in Week 5. He rushed for a season-high 140 yards on 19 carries in a 20-10 win.

"That didn't work out well for them," Turner said before breaking into a giggle.

Overall, Turner's statistics aren't as gaudy as during his 2008 breakthrough season of 1,699 yards and 17 touchdowns. Turner also doesn't have the same number of big plays that earned him the "Burner" nickname.

But this season is more personally rewarding in some ways. First, Turner is a smarter runner and better pass-catcher than when he initially arrived in Atlanta. Turner's developmental opportunities were limited during his first four NFL seasons in San Diego mired as a backup behind LaDainian Tomlinson.

"He can get 4 or 5 yards a pop almost every time when he runs it downhill," said Thomas Dimitroff, who made Turner his first free-agent signing when becoming Atlanta's general manager in 2008. "Yet each game he puts up a move or two where he can make the first man miss, surprisingly so for people who come up against him and think, 'This big dude is just going to bull me over.'"

Not that Turner — who is described by Muhelli as a "bowling ball of power" — is starting to shy from big hits. The 5-foot-10, 244-pound Turner relishes contact so much that Dimitroff laughed when recalling how his running back actually sought one-on-one confrontations with Baltimore middle linebacker Ray Lewis during a Week 10 contest.

"That little stocky body has benefits to it," Muhelli said. "He can't get on a lot of amusement park rides but he can withstand hits, always have leverage, stay low and be the power back we need."

Turner, though, now realizes that such collisions come with a heavy physical price. That's why he is taking far better care of his body with a masseuse and chiropractor as well as spending more time in the hot tub than in 2008, when Turner admits he was "young and dumb."

"I had no idea how many carries I was going to get, the toll it takes on your body and how to take care of yourself over the course of a whole season as opposed to being a backup," said Turner, who turns 29 in February. "I now take care of every nick and bruise in the training room. It might seem minor, but you don't want that to build up through the course of a season."

Turner said he made those changes in 2009 but wasn't able to see whether they made a difference entering the postseason. The Falcons missed the playoffs as Turner struggled with an ankle injury.

Dimitroff said Turner had additional motivation entering the 2010 campaign.

"I believe Michael took it very personally last year the insinuation that he was a one-year wonder," Dimitroff said. "He was battling injuries. He came back with such drive and focus to show the NFL that he was a legitimate all-pro type of back."

Turner had one more mission — and it didn't involve an NFL rushing title.

"Some guys say they want to rush for 2,500 yards or things like that," Turner said. "I don't focus on a number. The numbers will take care of themselves if you're playing hard and busting your tail week in and week out. My (goal) is to get our team into the playoffs and in position to win a Super Bowl."

If the Falcons are going to reach those heights, the Burner will be the one blazing the trail.

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