ATLANTA -- For much of the season, it has been almost painful to watch running back Michael Turner.
He’s 30 now, and there have been moments when he has looked slow, not that Turner ever was a speedster. But, in the past four seasons, he would steamroll defenders.
This season, Turner has looked like he has been stuck in low gear, and he seemed slower than ever in Sunday night’s first half against the Dallas Cowboys, when he carried the ball eight times for just 18 yards (a 2.3-yard average).
With 2:01 remaining in the third quarter and the game tied 6-6, Turner showed he still has plenty left. He took a handoff up the middle and broke it for a 43-yard gain. The play ended up changing the entire game for the Falcons, who at 8-0 are the NFL’s only undefeated team.
"He had a huge run, and I think we kind of broke their will on that one," veteran center Todd McClure said.
Three plays later, Turner scored the game’s first touchdown on a 3-yard run with 14:16 left in the game. He looked fresh, sometimes even fast, as he gained 35 yards on eight fourth-quarter carries to finish the game with 102 yards on 20 carries.
"It always feels good to break out with huge plays," Turner said. "I believe the team fed off that run and maintained that momentum for the rest of the game."
This is where you throw in the obligatory stat that the Falcons are 16-3 when Turner rushes for 100 yards or more since he joined the team in 2008. But this is also where you must note this is only the second time Turner has rushed for 100 yards this season (the other was in Week 4 when he gained 103 yards against Carolina).
Much has been made about how the Falcons brought in coordinator Dirk Koetter and how he has turned them into much more of a passing team. There has been a lot of talk about quarterback Matt Ryan being a candidate for most valuable player and a lot of hype about receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones and tight end Tony Gonzalez.
That’s all justified, because the passing game has been very good all season. But, as Turner kept fading into forgotten-man status in the eyes of fans and the media, coach Mike Smith continued talking about the importance of the running game week after week. Some of us had been rolling our eyes, but Sunday night proved that Smith was right.
"I think you have to play to your strengths," McClure said. "We’ve got some talented guys on the edges. But there’s going to be games now, in the regular season and in the playoffs where we have to have the running game. It might not be there every week. But, when we need him, he’s going to come through for us and we know that."
Turner came through on a night when Ryan, Jones, White and Gonzalez were only ordinary, and the Falcons managed only two field goals before the fourth quarter. Prior to Turner’s long run, the Dallas pass rush was all over Ryan, who rarely had time to find receivers downfield. After Turner’s big run, the Dallas pass rush was neutralized.
"Different games are going to take on different dynamics, and we knew that we had to run the football," Smith said. "Believe it or not, in the first half, even though the statistics don’t show it, we felt like we were very close. We knew if we could get it to the second level, our wide receivers were doing a great job blocking downfield. We just weren’t as efficient as we needed to be in the first half. We knew we needed to continue running the football, and it paid dividends there for us there in the second half."
It might have been easy for the Falcons to just give up on Turner and the running game after the first half. But Smith won’t allow that, and despite his growing reputation as a passing guru, Koetter still believes in Turner and the running game.
"The second half was huge," said Ryan, who threw for 342 yards, but no touchdowns. "We stuck with [the run]. Dirk did a great job of sticking with it."
No, this isn’t the same philosophy as the past four seasons, when the Falcons wanted Turner carrying the ball 25 or 30 times a game. They’ve limited his carries this season and, at times, have tried to get second-year running back Jacquizz Rodgers more involved in the offense.
But the Falcons know there will be times when they need Turner to come up big. Maybe he’s not the same runner he was in 2008, but he still is an important part of the Falcons, even though he may be at a point in his career where patience is more important than ever.
"It’s football," Turner said. "Every run is not going to be a big play. You have to be patient. Adjustments have to be made over the course of the game. We figured out what the defense was doing as far as the pass rush was concerned. We protected Matt a lot better. In the first half, he took a few shots, but our offensive line did a great job in the second half. That also helped the run game."
This won’t be the last time the Falcons need a big game from Turner. Sure, they’ll probably turn back to the passing game. But sometime later in the season, or maybe in the postseason, there will come another time that the passing game won’t be enough.
The Falcons can turn back to Turner then because they know he still can come through when it counts most.