Wiedmer: Turner could be key for Falcons vs. 49ers

Wiedmer: Turner could be key for Falcons vs. 49ers

January 18th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Atlanta Falcons' Michael Turner runs during an NFC divisional playoff NFL game against the Seattle Seahawks in Atlanta.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. - It's not as if Atlanta Falcons running back Michael Turner's numbers were awful during the team's 16 regular-season games.

He averaged exactly 50 yards a contest on the ground, scored 11 total touchdowns and turned in four games of 80 or more rushing yards and two 100-yarders.

But when you're making close to $6 million a year, when your first game for the ATL back in 2008 produced 220 rushing yards and two touchdowns, 50 yards a game doesn't really cut it with Sports Radio Nation.

Especially when you also found yourself charged with a DUI a few hours after the Falcons' Monday Night Football victory over Denver and Peyton Manning on Sept. 17.

"You hear some things, but it's all been good in here," Turner said inside the Falcons' training complex Thursday morning, three days from Sunday's NFC title game against the San Francisco 49ers in the Georgia Dome.

So how to explain the 98 rushing yards with a long run of 33 yards that Turner produced in last Sunday's playoff victory over Seattle?

"I'm fresh," Turner said with a smile. "I've had 100 less carries this season than last year [79 fewer, actually]; I'm healthy; I'm happy. I'm in the locker room with my teammates getting ready to play in the NFC title game. What could be better?"

Turner's postseason could become an example of less is more.

Hindered by groin pulls each of the past two seasons, he seemed worn out by the playoffs. And early deficits against Green Bay and New York the past two postseasons forced Atlanta to throw more and run less.

But the idea of limiting his touches in the regular season to keep him fresh for the playoffs had been on Atlanta coach Mike Smith's mind long before this season, according to the 30-year-old Turner.

"It had been planned for years," the player said. "We just didn't have everything in place."

The maturation of second-year running back Jacquizz Rodgers changed all that. After gaining 205 rushing yards on 57 carries his rookie year, Rodgers picked up 362 yards and one TD on 94 totes this time around. Equally impressive, he caught 53 passes for another 402 yards and a second score.

"Michael's a bully in there. He breaks a lot of tackles," said the 5-6, 188-pound Rodgers. "I'm quicker. I'd rather go around people. It's a good change of pace."

It was such a good change of pace against the Seahawks last week that Rodgers rushed for 64 yards and caught two passes for 29 yards.

And because of those numbers, Seattle was forced to focus more on the run at the expense of the pass, which was at least a portion of the reason Matt Ryan threw for three touchdowns and 250 yards, his best playoff performance ever.

"There comes a time in every season that you have to be able to run the football," Smith said Thursday following the Falcons' best rushing performance of the season. "And it's evident every year when you get into the playoffs."

Asked to talk about both Turner and Rodgers, Smith said, "It was nice to see Jacquizz run like Michael Turner last week."

It certainly will be different this week. The 49ers defense is the toughest to score on in the NFL. Good as the Seahawks were, the 49ers figure to be better.

Because of that, Turner was asked what he thought was the biggest key to defeating San Francisco on Sunday.

"Keep their offense off the field," he said.

And nothing does that better than a running back who can break a lot of tackles.