With Michael Turner Healthy, Falcons' Backfield Looks Potent
When Turner is healthy, said head coach Mike Smith, the entire offense is given a boost. His presence is a boon to both the running and passing attack and forces defenses into one-on-one situations with the Falcons' receivers and tight ends.
"Mike has the ability, when he has the ball in his hands, to go the distance," said Smith. "And that forces defenses to change their philosophy on how they're going to try and defend us."
But what about opposing defensive strategy when Turner was injured?
With Jason Snelling and Jerious Norwood in the backfield full-time, defenses were able to focus more effort on stopping the Falcons' passing game and keeping quarterback Matt Ryan in check.
This was apparent in Atlanta's first three games without Turner, all losses. Snelling was held to 3.3 yards per carry, while Norwood only averaged 2.6. In turn, the Falcons were only able to score 20.3 points per game, a four-point drop from their scoring output in the first nine games with Turner in the backfield.
Something changed, however, in the final two games of the season. Snelling upped his average to 5.4 yards per carry and even had a 147-yard game against Buffalo. Norwood got better, too, raising his per-carry average an entire yard, to 3.6.
This power surge from Turner's backups in the final two weeks of the season gave the front office enough of a reason to avoid tinkering with the running back situation. The Falcons will enter the 2010 season with Turner as the featured back and Snelling and Norwood, once again, as his backups.
How much of a role Snelling (right) and Norwood play is still anyone's guess.
The team plans to limit Turner's workload this season, hoping to preserve the back and avoid an injury situation like the one that played out in 2009.
"I really think it's going to be very important that we monitor how we distribute the ball," said Smith speaking of Turner's potential workload reduction. "I think you go into [the season] with a plan, but I don't think it's set in concrete from week to week."
Turner said that he's not going to concern himself with the number of carries he gets. He's relatively sure that he understands his role in the offense.
"It depends how the game is going," Turner said. "If we're pounding teams really good, they're going to pull me out. Down in the fourth quarter, if it's close and tight, I'm pretty sure they're going to give me the ball to close out the game."
What's not completely clear yet is who Turner's main backup will be. With the way Snelling finished the season -- 215 yards in his final two games -- he feels that he's done enough to fill that role.
"I think, last year, that I showed that I'm able to carry the load," said Snelling. "When the time comes to spell Mike, I hope they turn to me."
Turner thinks that Snelling looks faster and sharper than he did last year.
"Snelling looks really good," Turner said. "He got a little taste of football last year and I think that really motivated him this year to go out and try even harder."
Snelling said that he hasn't changed much in his offseason workouts, but he did stay in Atlanta in the offseason and has been working hard with Jeff Fish, Atlanta's director of athletic performance, to get into the best shape possible.
He's also been working hard on his hands -- Snelling was fourth on the Falcons last year with 30 receptions, but still has room for improvement.
"It's been a part of my game since college, [catching balls] coming out of the backfield," Snelling said. "But I can always get better at route running and being a better target for Matt [Ryan]."
Norwood also stuck to a very similar workout program in the offseason, although he did come in every day to get treatment on his hip, an injury that cost him six games last year.
The hip is fine now, said Norwood: "It feels really good. The first week back at camp it was kind of tight on me, but it's been gradually getting better and better."
Turner said that he still hasn't recovered to 100 percent from his high-ankle sprain either.
With Turner and Norwood recovering from injuries, and the primary backup job still up for grabs, the Falcons' backfield still has questions that will need to be answered once training camp arrives at the end of July.
One thing is for sure: The camaraderie between Turner, Norwood and Snelling is unique and each one wants the best for the others. Turner even admitted that he wouldn't be opposed to running in a three-back system.
"If you want to use me, Snelling and Norwood," he said, "I'm not against it at all."
Norwood feels that the three backs will make the best of the situation, but if one of them has to go, whomever leaves will be in good shape.
"I feel that any of our running backs here could go to any of the other 31 teams in the league and start," Norwood said. "I don't think it's a big deal for us as to who's playing and who's not. Any of our backs can get the job done."