Atlanta Backfield Provides Another Test


Over the past two weeks, the Green Bay Packers have faced both the Dallas Cowboys' and Tampa Bay Buccaneers' versions of a two-headed backfield, that classic combination of a power runner complemented by a speed back.

And now the Atlanta Falcons are bringing their duo to Lambeau Field, with their power guy leading the NFL in rushing through four games.

Atlanta's Michael Turner, a free-agent acquisition after backing up San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson for four years, started 2008 with a 22-carry, 220-yard performance against Detroit and has only added to it since.

He has a league-best 422 rushing yards and five TDs with a 5.5-yard average. Add to that speedy Jerious Norwood's 237 rushing yards and gaudy 7.0 average, and the Falcons have the No. 1 rushing offense in football supporting rookie quarterback Matt Ryan.

"When we were looking at free agency and how we wanted to try to start laying the foundation for this team, that we wanted to have a running back to pound the ball in between the tackles, and Michael can do that," first-year Atlanta head coach Mike Smith said. "And he also has the speed to go the distance. He's had a number of 75-yard runs over the last three years. He's a guy that you can count on getting 20 carries out of every week, and I think he's a great complement to our other running back, Jerious Norwood.

"In this day and time you've got to have two backs that can carry the football for you. Michael is our No. 1 and I'd say Jerious is our No. 1A, so we feel good about both of those guys."

The Cowboys' and Buccaneers' backfield duos certainly gave the Packers their share of problems in Green Bay's two defeats, so containing Turner and Norwood could be the biggest key to victory for the Packers.

Against Dallas two weeks ago, Marion Barber and Felix Jones combined for 218 rushing yards on 34 carries (6.4 avg.), including Jones' 60-yard TD run. Then last week at Tampa, Earnest Graham and Warrick Dunn combined for 174 yards on 36 carries (4.8 avg.).

The effort against Tampa Bay was much better, as the Packers strung more runs out to the sidelines. Head Coach Mike McCarthy felt the defenders didn't get the backs down as soon as they should have, but the gap discipline was much better than the previous week at Dallas.

That holds true when you consider that before Graham's 47-yard run and subsequent 1-yard TD plunge late in the game, he and Dunn had 126 yards on 34 rushes, just 3.7 per carry.

But, as the coaches are fond of saying, they all count. And if the run defense falters on a crucial fourth-quarter drive, the solid work done up to that point only gets processed as the offense wearing the defense down over the course of the game.

"It's hard to say you took a step forward when you lose, because you're judged on wins and losses," defensive tackles coach Robert Nunn said of the Tampa game. "But we did feel good there at the end. We felt like we had them under control. But that's part of this league. You have to play every snap. You can't play 99 out of 100. You've got to play that other snap, because that may be the snap that goes the distance, and that's what happened to us. We've got to stop that."

That occasional big gain has been the Achilles heel of the run defense. In addition to the 60-yarder by Jones and the 47-yarder by Graham, the Packers also have allowed a 34-yard run by Minnesota's Adrian Peterson in the season opener and a 25-yard run to Barber. Those plays have accounted for 166 of the 631 rushing yards the Packers have given up, or 26 percent of the yardage on just three percent of the rushes (4 of 121).

"There are a lot of areas of improvement, but still yet, those explosive plays are what's killing us," Nunn said. "That's what we have to get fixed. We just have to make sure everyone is doing their part to fix that and continue to build on the positive things we're seeing on tape."

The task becomes even tougher this week because one of the team's best run stoppers, defensive end Cullen Jenkins, has been put on injured reserve and is out for the season. Fourth-year pro Michael Montgomery steps in to take his place at end on run downs, and he's sure to be tested early and often by Turner and Norwood.

"I hope so, so I can definitely go out there and prove what I can do," Montgomery said. "I hope they test me. Every game is a test for me individually. If they run at me, I'm going to be ready."

He'll need to be, because as much as Jenkins was off to a Pro Bowl start before getting hurt, Turner is having an even better year thus far.

He's already had 10 carries go for 10-or-more yards in 2008, and it's no accident that in Atlanta's two victories, Turner has 45 carries for 324 yards (7.2 avg.), while in the Falcons' two losses, he has just 98 yards on 32 carries (3.1 avg.).

"He's just powerful," Nunn said of the 5-foot-10, 244-pounder, who uses the impressive lower body strength to break a lot of tackles. "He's hard to bring down. One guy very seldom brings him down unless he cuts his feet out from under him. A lot of strength, a lot of burst. A powerful guy.

"We have to be on our 'A' game to get them shut down. They have a good young offensive line that has executed well and kept the pressure off their rookie most of the time. They're off to a solid start. Their two wins they've looked outstanding. We have to bring our 'A' game."

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