Burner Turner gets Vikings' respect

Ben Leber used to be teammates with RB Michael Turner in San Diego. Now Leber and his Vikings teammates are faced with stopping one of the best running backs in the NFL.

For opponents of the Minnesota Vikings, one of the primary objectives week in and week out is trying to contain Adrian Peterson. Anyone who has followed the Vikings over the last two seasons knows that such a proposition is much easier said than done. You know A.D. is going to get his carries and get his yardage – whether in consistently small doses or in the back-breaking run that goes the distance.

The Vikings are going to get a taste of that medicine this week as they face the Atlanta Falcons and star running back Michael Turner. A free-agent signee in the offseason, Turner spent his first four years as the backup to LaDainian Tomlinson, viewed by most as the NFL's premier running back during that span. Much like being a shortstop in the Baltimore Orioles system when Cal Ripken was going through his streak, being the No. 2 guy behind a workhorse like Tomlinson seemed like a waste. Turner would get sporadic chances to showcase himself, but, for the most part, he found himself obscured by the long shadow being thrown by L.T.

That ended – in a big way – this year. As the unquestioned No. 1 running back heading into training camp this season with the Falcons, Turner has left no doubt that his time has arrived. Through 14 games, he has rushed 332 times for 1,421 yards and 15 touchdowns – keeping pace with Peterson all season long.

As the Falcons prepare to bring the NFL's top-rated run offense against the league's top-rated run defense, it is a Clash of the Titans in which something will have to give. Who will win this battle of top-rated units in their respective positions? That will go a long way to determining who leaves the Metrodome with a win Sunday.

"We're going to have our work cut out for us this week," linebacker Ben Leber said. "It's a great test for us and we want them to bring it on. It's us against them – their strength against our strength."

Leber is no stranger to Turner. While he was operating in relative obscurity as Tomlinson's caddy, about the only time he was truly able to shine for the San Diego Chargers was in practice, where he and Leber toiled as teammates. It seemed a foregone conclusion that the Chargers wouldn't be able to pay the kind of money Turner would command on the open market, and Leber said he wasn't surprised that the Falcons backed up the Brinks truck with a huge contract. He knew that it was only a matter of time before the rest of world found out what Leber and his Chargers teammates already knew.

"Every time he came into the game, there was never a letdown when he was spelling L.T.," Leber said. "I respected the guy when I was there and played with him. I knew the type of runner he was and how explosive he could be. They don't call him Burner Turner for nothing. He's fast. He's strong. He's proved that he's an elite back in this league."

The arrival of Turner coincided with the drafting of quarterback Matt Ryan, giving a once-punchless Atlanta offense that struggled badly without Michael Vick a burst of adrenaline in both the running and passing game. While Roddy White had emerged in 2007 as a viable go-to receiving threat, the addition of Turner and Ryan has been an offensive perfect storm that has made the Falcons a multi-dimensional attack. Ryan has been as impressive as any rookie quarterback in recent years, but Turner is the straw that stirs the drink and helps create opportunities for all of the Falcons' other skill-position players.

"If you have a back like that with that kind of running game, you want to establish that guy first," Leber said. "It opens up the passing game. They have a great balance of run and pass this year, which makes it extremely difficult for a defense to get a key on what's going on because they can make explosive plays out of either (the pass or run)."

The similarities in production by Turner and Peterson don't end with their own gaudy rushing numbers. Merely stopping Turner doesn't bring the Falcons' running game to a halt. Just as the Vikings can turn to Chester Taylor, the Falcons have a third-down and change-of-pace back in Jerrious Norwood. He is averaging almost five yards a carry and has 33 receptions, making the Falcons offense more diversified than it has been in years.

"The hard thing about this team is that it is hard to make them one-dimensional," Leber said. "They do such a good job of balancing their attack. You stop Turner and they also have Norwood, who is an extremely talented guy – fast and can get to the edge. If you shut that down, it's not like they're missing much in their pass offense. It's going to be imperative that we keep them in predictable situations."

Although most of the Vikings defenders have never had to deal with Turner on a one-on-one level in their careers, they agree with Leber that there are some similarities between the running style Turner employs and the style so many of us have become accustomed to seeing in Peterson.

"They're obviously both extremely physical," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "I would say probably the biggest similarity is that they're not scared of contact. Turner is not going to go down on the first hit, very rarely. If you're a linebacker and you can take him down in the hole by yourself, you're doing something. He's huge – 235, 240, whatever he is – and he's running. He's going to be good."

While fans of the Falcons will be worried about how much damage Peterson could potentially do their playoff hopes, it could be argued that the Vikings haven't faced as talented a back all season that they will be up against Sunday. Leber knows that better than most and said the Vikings will have to bring their best to contain him.

"If you look at the number of carries he has (23.5 a game), it's clear they aren't going to abandon the run," Leber said. "He's a lot like Adrian in that respect. You can stop him for a series, for a quarter, for a half. But eventually, he breaks a big run off that can change a game. We're going to have to be on top of our game from start to finish to make sure that he doesn't do the same to us."


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