Everything's a big deal in the playoffs. Recognizing that, we're doing away with the traditional Four Critical Matchups post in favor of four individual, more detailed looks at what lies ahead in the Falcons-Packers game. Joins us through Friday to catch them all.
Michael Turner is like a box of chocolates. Sometimes you bite into a chocolate and you get 100 yards and a couple of touchdowns. Sometimes you chomp on one and get 45 yards on 20 carries. I compare those ones to coconut.
My convoluted point is that Turner has not been the most consistent, reliable back in 2010. His final numbers were good enough to get him to the Pro Bowl, but he's careened wildly between games like Cleveland (7.4 yards per carry) to the New Orleans rematch (2.8 YPC). That's hardly rare for backs in the NFL, but it does underscore the simple fact that Turner has his exceptional days and his awful days.
The Falcons need him to have a good day against the Packers. His success is intimately linked to Matt Ryan's, and if the Packers can afford to sit back in coverage all day, it's bad news for our favorite Iceman. Of course, he's not alone in needing to have a good day.
As I see it, Turner's success depends on three things. Here's what has to happen to get the Burner burning properly.
1) Varied play calls from Mike Mularkey
There's a lot to be said for bludgeoning defenses by running your 250-plus pound back up the middle. It's effective at wearing defensive front sevens down, and it can pay off with more effective offense later in the game. I don't begrudge Mularkey the use of these plays a half-dozen or even a dozen times a game, if the situation calls for it.
The problem is that Turner simply can't drive a pile of two or three 300 pound guys backwards unless he gathers a significant amount of steam, and he can't do it when he's only got time to take two or three quick steps and get stuffed. The price you pay for potential success late in the game is a maddening lack of success early on, and we've all seen enough of Turner gaining three yards total on two carries up the middle, watching Matt Ryan throw a short pass or miss on an obvious third down pass and then punting.
The solution? Variety! Use Turner as your hammer to wear down the defense, but mix in some outside runs and have Ovie Mughelli and Tony Gonzalez toss some blocks to spring Turner. Once he gets a couple of yards out in open space, Turner becomes a massive headache because of his speed, his weight and the way his legs churn. It's going to be critical to establish the run and make it successful enough for the Packers to care, and 15 carries for 45 yards is nobody's idea of doing so.
Also, don't forget about Jason Snelling. He hasn't been as effective over the last few games, but if Turner can't get it done, it's worth trying.
2) Effective blocking for Turner
Of course, even an infinite loop of runs up the middle can work if the blocking is excellent.
The Falcons have struggled to keep gaps open for Turner at times this season, which is certainly a contributing factor on his worst days. If there's a way to damn the big guy with faint praise, it's to say he doesn't have the field vision of a guy like Jamaal Charles, which prevents him from dancing around behind the line but also means he'll sometimes miss gaps. That makes it imperative for the line to know where he's going and throw their weight around to give him a little breathing room.
There's really very little trickery involved here. You can have Ovie chip in on blocks up the middle to try to part the Green and Gold Sea, but there's always the danger that he'll end up in the way when Turner's going. The Falcons offensive line just needs to block well, and I'm confident they can do it against the 18th ranked rushing defense in the NFL.
Unfortunately, the Packers have been extremely stingy near the goal line all season long, allowing only six rushing touchdowns. Blocking will be a factor there, too.
3) Run well, Turner
You have to take the other two factors into account, but again, while Turner's been effective this season, he hasn't been as effective.
The 4.1 YPC average for this season is lower than 2009 (4.9) and 2008 (4.5). He's gotten in the neighborhood of double the carries he did in 2009 and has only scored twice more (12 to 10). At times, he's looked like an older, slower version of the guy who took the NFL by storm in 2008.
That may sound unduly harsh given how important he remains to the Falcons, but I have confidence that those performances are chiefly driven by matchups. Any back will look mortal against teams like the Steelers and, as much as I hate to admit it, even the Saints. Turner's had another heavy workload in 2010, but he's got another 50+ carries in the tank and should be rejuvenated with some time to rest.
To make the running game a success, he'll have to be a human battering ram. The Packers have to fear Turner's ability to make plays in open space, and they have to fear the cartoon-style Michael Turner bruising he'll leave when he supercollides with them. They have to know that given the opportunity, Burner will leave a cleat mark on their faces and scorch marks on their very souls.
That in turn will open things up for Matt Ryan. As you might expect, you'll hear more about him tomorrow.