FLOWERY BRANCH, GA — Michael Turner is already a player in the Falcons' offense that opposing defenses must scheme for every Sunday, but this season he's expecting to give them something else to worry about.
In his six-year career, Turner's never been asked to be a significant part of the passing game, but dating back to last season, he's been working on that phase of the game to make Atlanta's offense even more dynamic. He believes it's the area of his game that needs the most improvement. Despite only 22 regular season catches in his career, the coaching staff has approached him about introducing the new wrinkle to the offense.
"That's something that coaches have been talking about," Turner said Monday morning. "I just want to be more effective in the passing game, not totally just focused on the run. I'm trying to improve all phases of my game."
The running back, known as a bruising-style back, doesn't believe there's any reason for his lack of involvement in the passing attack. With a career yards per carry average of 4.9, he was getting the job done on the ground so well there didn't appear to be any reason to have him catching swing passes out of the backfield. However, this season, he wants to give the coaches and the offense an additional means to gather yards.
"It was just something I wasn't a part of," he said of his place in past offenses. "It's not that I was clearly dropping balls in games. If the coaches want me to have the football, they'll hand it to me and now I'm trying to give them the option that they can throw it to me."
Turner hasn't been completely invaluable as a receiver. In 2008's playoff loss to the Arizona Cardinals, he caught one pass for a seven-yard touchdown.
With an additional title of pass-catching back for Turner in 2010, he feels it will keep defenses on their heels and guessing when he's lined up in the backfield.
"It's just another element to the game," Turner said. "Now when No. 33 is in the game it's not a run play automatically. We can run and pass when I'm in the game. If I can add that to the arsenal, then it's just better for us as a team."
Making a push: Last season, Thomas Johnson joined the Falcons after spending a year teaching school in his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. At the time the move appeared to be another deep depth signing by general manager Thomas Dimitroff, but the 6-foot-2, 307-pound defensive tackle ended up starting ten games after '09 first-round draft pick Peria Jerry was lost for the season in Week 2.
Johnson is back with the team this year in training camp, but the return of Jerry and the addition of third-round draft pick Corey Peters presents a a training camp battle for Johnson that shapes up to be as big as the player himself. So far in camp Johnson has performed well, including a few plays on Monday morning when he appeared in the offense's backfield. That's a skillset that head coach Mike Smith likes in Johnson.
"He's got very good upper body strength and is really more of a base player than a sub player," Smith said. "He's not a guy that will get a whole lot of snaps in our sub package, but he is a guy that can penetrate and make plays in the backfield."
Johnson needs to continue to impress to fend off the competition charging from all angles at his position. Smith feels in the coming weeks that position battle will be one to watch.
"As we add Peria back into the mix later on this week and into next week, I think it's going to really amp up that competition," Smith said.
Special Weems: What a difference a year makes for Eric Weems.
Coming into training camp in 2009, Weems was considered a fringe player at a stacked wide receiver position, having spent the majority of the '08 season on the practice squad.
After the injury to wide receiver and return man Harry Douglas, the door opened for Weems and the 5-foot-9, 195-pound receiver walked through it. He finished last season appearing in all 16 games as the team's primary return man and slot receiver, recording two receiving touchdowns.
Weems knows with Douglas' return, last season's success may have little impact on what happens to him with the Falcons in 2010. With that in mind, he's approaching this year just as he did last year.
"Nothing's different," Weems said following Monday's first practice. "I've worked hard in the offseason. I've come in in shape. I study the plays here and there while I'm at home on break or when I'm sitting around I'll look over the plays to make sure I'm mentally sharp."
However, Douglas is being eased back into a more significant role on the team, so the door is still open for Weems. Smith said Monday that he felt it was too early to tell if Douglas will be involved this season in returning punts and kickoffs. If that's the case, Smith is happy with Weems.
"I think Eric is a guy that not only has value as a wide receiver, but he definitely showed he can be a returner in this league," Smith said. "Even though he doesn't have homerun speed, he's a guy that gets the ball north and south when he's returning punts and kickoffs. Also if he's not a returner, he's actually one of our best gunners and our best cover guys as well. You want those third, fourth, and fifth wide receivers to be guys that can contribute on special teams and that's the thing I think Eric dos so well."
In the back of his mind, Weems knows what he accomplished last season laid the foundation for a confidence that is starting to grow. He knows the coaching staff is watching him closely because of what he did on the field in '09 when given the chance.
"It's a major confidence boost," Weems said. "It lets me know the coaching staff has faith in me. They trust me to go out and play hard. It's on me to do my job and give them my best effort."
His best effort has earned the 25-year old the tag from Smith as one of the team's "core players."
"If you had to say who our top-five special teams players are, you would have to mention Eric Weems," Smith said.
The competition between the two young receivers may be fierce on the field, but off it, the two roommates aren't concerned with position battles and training camp depth charts.
"We keep each other up all hours of the night," Weems said. "He's always lighting his little candles and I'll go and blow them out. We have a great relationship."