Posted by Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson
Quick: Who led the league in rushing in three of the last four seasons? Atlanta. Surprised? Don't be. Though much of the production came from a quarterback with elite running ability, the Falcons have had a strong ground attack for years now. Last season was the one year it slipped, but now, despite some big changes, Atlanta is back among the NFL leaders in rushing.
Gone, obviously, is the quarterback who made the big runs, as is the zone blocking scheme. Instead, Atlanta now calls inside zone, outside zone and power O runs that emphasize strength and size more than agility. In a typical zone blocking scheme (like Denver's), the linemen block an area and the back reads the line to find the hole. Here, the linemen go out and initiate movement into defenders.
It's a scheme that fits this much-improved line. Many criticized the Falcons for reaching on Sam Baker on draft day, but he has been a fantastic fit at left tackle, a position that was a turnstile last season. Right guard Harvey Dahl is the other new starter up front, and though he doesn't have Baker's pedigree, he has fit in very well. These two have strengthened what were the weakest spots on last year's line.
Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey loves to build his running attack around a big, powerful back. He did it in Pittsburgh with Jerome Bettis, and he's doing it in Atlanta with Michael Turner. Turner has great size (5-foot-10, 244 pounds), and though he doesn't have the overpowering strength and pure bulk of Bettis, he's a very strong runner and has more speed than Bettis. For such a big runner, Turner's long speed is amazing, and he has translated that into numerous long runs this season. He is an excellent fit within the design of Mularkey's offense.
Add Jerious Norwood to the mix and it's easy to see why this rushing attack has been so productive. Norwood is the ultimate change-of-pace complement to the pounding Turner. He has excellent vision and better speed. He is a quick-twitch athlete who makes preparing for Atlanta's rushing attack far more difficult. Norwood has averaged at least six yards per carry in each of his three NFL seasons and currently is reeling off a ridiculous 6.6 yards per rush.
Though some still have doubts, the Falcons continue to prove they can run. Green Bay routinely sent extra defenders up to the line of scrimmage Sunday, but Atlanta's offensive line, tight ends and FB Ovie Mughelli (a bruising blocker) had their way with the Packers' defensive front, play after play. TE Ben Hartsock is a pile-mover who deserves mention for his ability to seal the edge and manhandle defensive ends and linebackers alike. The counter play is becoming a staple, with the guard and center blocking down and the weakside guard pulling in to clean out anyone left on the line. Mughelli leads, taking out the linebacker and allowing Turner to hit the hole and get downhill. Once he gets going, Turner is tough to bring down one-on-one.
Some concerns linger. Turner is running well, but his three 100-plus yard games came against Detroit, Kansas City and a Green Bay defense that is playing with a shell of the defensive line it had a year ago. In the other two games -- at Carolina and Tampa Bay -- Turner averaged just over three yards per carry. So despite the clear improvement that has been made and plenty of reason for further optimism, let's not get too carried away just yet. Chicago, allowing just 74.2 yards per game, will be a good test.
Still, the early returns on Atlanta's ground attack can't be ignored: 180.6 yards per game, good for second in the NFL. Too early to say whether the Falcons will make it four out of five years leading the league in rushing, but Turner, Mularkey and the Falcons are off to a running start.