THE KEY MATCHUP
It doesn't take a genius to figure out that the Falcons are going to want to run the football on Sunday
What was startling was how Michael Turner — in his first start as a full-time NFL back — completely dismembered the Detroit Lions defense last week.
Of course, it was the Lions.
But Turner — "The Burner" to his fans — blazed a trail for himself and his new team last weekend when he rushed for 220 yards and two touchdowns.
He also put a big old-fashioned bulls' eye on his back.
Turner won the NFC Offensive Player of the Week award for Week 1. He averaged 10 yards per carry and his 66-yard touchdown run ¬— right after QB Matt Ryan's long touchdown pass to start the game — pretty much put the Lions behind the 8-ball all afternoon.
His 220 yards also set a franchise record.
Why was Turner so effective last weekend? Well, first of all, he's bigger than a player nicknamed "The Burner" would suggest. He's 5-foot-10, but his 244 pounds makes him a difficult tackle for any defender. When he rushed for San Diego behind LaDainian Tomlinson, long touchdown runs were his forte. With the Chargers, he had scores of 74 and 83 yards. He also had a 73-yarder that didn't yield a touchdown.
Turner's speed and physical play makes him a difficult player to stop. He can take a hit, elude or run through arm tackles and showed last week that he can make things happen behind an offensive line most experts consider average.
What impressed me the most, though, was how maturely Turner ran. He waited for holes to open. He showed patience and good field vision. He used his body effectively to shield the ball from defenders downfield.
He's exactly the kind of runner the Falcons have lacked since Jamal Anderson. And Turner is much faster than Anderson ever thought of being.
When the Falcons signed Turner and hired offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, they knew what they were getting — a hammer of a back and a coordinator that would use him in a power ground attack.
That's what the Bucs have to stop on Sunday, and Ruud must be the focal point.
Ruud, 6-foot-2 and 241 pounds, has become the fulcrum of the Buccaneers defense in his short time as a starter. Ruud himself understand the hot start Turner is putting together. Ruud was the NFC Defensive Player of the Week for Week 1 last year, and the NFC Defensive Player of the Month for September.
The only doubts about Ruud's ability were whether they would translate in a 16-game season. He answered those questions last season with a Pro Bowl-worthy performance, as he registered more than 150 total tackles.
Ruud has always been an astute student. He takes great angles to the ball carrier and rarely finds himself out of position. More importantly, as the middle linebacker he manages to keep his teammates in the right position. That's important because, while Ruud can cover a lot of ground, having his teammates in the right position can make his life easier.
He tackles well and rarely fails to hang onto a player once he's made the first hit.
But Ruud didn't face a player like Turner last weekend. The Bucs squared off with Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas — both considered much smaller backs than Turner — and the Saints rushed for a little more than 100 yards. The Saints didn't beat the Bucs with their backfield. They beat them with the passing game.
The Falcons want to beat the Buccaneers with Turner and, as evidenced by how they used him, I don't think they'll be discouraged if the running game is unsuccessful early in the contest.
The Falcons, in a closer game, will use Turner like a hammer, I think, much the way the Bucs used Earnest Graham last season. They'll want Turner to be in the 16-to-20 carry range entering the fourth quarter. By then, the Falcons' hope would be that the Bucs are tired and they can run right through them.
If the Falcons are able to dictate the pace of the game on Sunday, then Turner may have the ability to run relatively free late in the game. The Falcons have to keep the contest close and a solid ground game can accomplish that.
But if Turner and the Falcons are unsuccessful in accomplishing that, Ruud will have a great deal to do with that. He's quick enough to shoot gaps and keep Turner from gathering steam before the line of scrimmage. That will be key to keeping Turner from being a factor in this game. Ruud had 10 tackles last week, so he doesn't wear down like some middle linebackers can late in games.
I think that's the key — getting Ruud in the backfield and tagging Turner with several losses, forcing Mularkey to put the ball in the hands of Ryan. That's a recipe for a loss for the Falcons, I think.
Matthew Postins is the editor and publisher of Bucsblitz.com.