Whatever happened to Michael Turner?

Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Since right about the time he toted the ball for the 376th time last season, it has been fair to ask if perhaps the Atlanta Falcons wore out Michael Turner.

The question no longer is just fair. It’s necessary. The man who carried the Falcons to the playoffs last season hasn’t gone much of anywhere this season. After running for 1,699 yards last year, the days of triple-digit rushing yards have dried up. Turner has hit the 100-yard mark only once this season, and that was back in Week 2 against a Carolina team that essentially was playing without defensive tackles.

So is Turner facing the same fate as all those other running backs who went into big declines after carrying 325 or 350 times in a season? Let’s go straight to the best source.

“I’m still healthy,’’ Turner said after a 37-21 loss to Dallas on Sunday. “It’s not a health issue. I still feel fine.’’

But Turner and the running game haven’t been looking fine and what happened against Dallas may have demonstrated there’s a problem that’s getting worse instead of better. Turner carried 18 times for 50 yards. That’s a 2.8 average, which would translate into a 0.8 if this were a grade-point average.

“Concerned? I don’t know that I’d use that word,’’ Turner said. “But it is something we need to get better at.’’

Apologies to Turner, and I fully realize the Falcons were without injured fullback Ovie Mughelli and backup running back Jerious Norwood, but I will use the word concerned. The Falcons should be extremely concerned about their top running back and their running game in general.

Not even the seven carries for 68 yards by backup Jason Snelling were enough to give the Falcons anything close to a passing grade on the ground, and we’ll touch on the passing too, because it wasn’t very good. Matt Ryan was 19 of 35 for 198 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Uncharacteristically, he made bad decisions and, just as uncharacteristically, he got poor protection.

But I’m going to go ahead and place the blame for Atlanta’s offensive struggles on the running game. It’s supposed to be the core character of the offense and it hasn’t been close to that all season. The lack of productivity in the running game is throwing everything out of whack. When Turner’s not running clock, that means a defense that really isn’t all that talented has to spend a lot more time on the field and that’s a problem.

Worse yet, what happened with Turner and the running game wasn’t just a blip. It’s a growing and very disturbing trend. Even in last week’s win against Chicago, Turner carried 13 times for 30 yards. Glance back at the opener against Miami, where he carried 22 times for 65 yards or the Week 3 loss to New England, where he gained 56 yards on 15 carries.

“We’re not running the ball nearly as effectively as last year,’’ coach Mike Smith said. “It’s something we’ve been working on and will continue to work on.’’

The Falcons better hurry up and get in some more work in on the running game.

“This week is an opportunity for us to get better,’’ Ryan said. “We’ve got an extra day of practice because of the Monday night game and we’ve got to use it to get better.’’

Ah, the Monday night game. We can’t forget that. A week from Monday, the Falcons travel to New Orleans to play the Saints. The Falcons are 4-2. The Saints are 6-0. The Saints also have a defense that suddenly has become good.

If Turner and the running game don’t snap the slump, Atlanta’s entire team again will be thrown off its formula and any chance at an NFC South title could forever slip away. Just imagine what Drew Brees can do against Atlanta’s struggling defensive backs if Turner and the offense keep going three and out?

“Those are all alarms,’’ Smith said of his running and passing games.

But let’s sound a three-alarm blast for Atlanta’s running game. Without it, the Falcons have no chance against the Saints and they’re in big trouble the rest of the season. Without even the threat of a running game, defenses can go after Ryan, as the Cowboys did Sunday.

“We had some good runs on first downs,’’ right tackle Tyson Clabo said. “But we didn’t do anything on second downs. That set up some third-and-long situations and we just didn’t protect Matt like we should have.’’

Yes, give the offensive line some blame for not protecting Ryan very well. But give that line even more blame for not opening holes. Give Turner blame for not hitting the holes. Give Atlanta’s coaching staff blame for not making things work in the running game.

But that’s enough blame for now because the Falcons have time to save their season. They’ve got that extra day of practice that Ryan referred to.

Just a thought here, but maybe Smith should sit down Turner, the offensive line and really the whole offense in one of those film rooms at their Flowery Branch complex. Then, he should break out the tapes of all those games Turner ran for 100 yards last season. There was a common theme in those eight games. The Falcons were undefeated.

Let’s take it one step further and add in the 105-yard performance against Carolina and let’s bend the rules a bit and include 97 yards on 22 carries in a victory at San Francisco two weeks ago -- Turner easily could have gone over 100 yards, but the Falcons pulled him because they were winning big.

Let’s do the math. Since the start of last season, the Falcons are 10-0 when Turner has a big game. They’re 5-7 when he doesn’t.

I’d say take those numbers and consider the recent trend. It’s time for Turner and the Falcons to be more than concerned about their running game. It’s time to fix it, before it’s too late.