Prior to last week's performance against the Saints, the Falcons offense appeared to warming up, clicking on the necessary cylinders to put points up in bunches.
The Falcons have been able to do this mostly through the air, using the running game as more of a threat than a weapon, the threat coming by way of the Falcons establishing themselves in the NFL in recent seasons as a prolific offense that uses the running game as its center piece.
Although running back Michael Turner hasn't eclipsed 100 yards rushing since Week 11, the Falcons have still found success on offense. In the season's highlight performance, the Falcons put up 41 points against a solid Jacksonville defense. In that game, Turner rushed for 61 yards and added a rushing touchdown.
The threat of Turner helped the Falcons develop their passing game, but against the Saints, the running back rushed for 39 yards, accounting for all of Atlanta's positive gains on the ground.
Falcons head coach Mike Smith said the ground game needs to be a viable option late in the season, especially in Atlanta's case as they head into the playoffs, road games and potential bad weather. Smith said he and his staff haven't missed the fact that the running numbers aren't where they were earlier in the season.
"They've been trending down, there's no doubt about that," Smith said. "Of course, we analyze that each and every week and I guess 'system check' is a good way to put it. We're going to evaluate each and every week. We see how it's trending and, at the end of the season, you want to be able to run the football, especially with the potential of playing some inclement weather games based on the options that we are possibly looking at."
The coach said the microscope goes over the scheme first in finding ways to better run the ball. Coaches come next and must consider ways to better-utilize the talent on the roster before players are examined. Smith said he felt that was the best way to get a full evaluation of such situations.
Everyone knows running the football is important and can become more so in the playoffs. Turner agrees more production needs to come from the run game, especially heading into the second season.
"To win playoff football, you've got to be able to run and throw it a little bit," Turner said. "You never know what situation you'll be in in the playoffs. Every team is good. Every team will have a good quarterback so we've got to keep them off the field."
The Falcons have a good opportunity to right their running ship against the Bucs in the season's final game. Tampa's run defense is ranked next-to-last this season, allowing 149.7 yards rushing per game. Their 23 rushing touchdowns allowed is the most in the league.
Turner has been getting extra rest during the week lately due to a groin injury that has bothered him, but the coach and player both say the injury isn't the reason for the decline in numbers. Both point to the flow of the game and the threat of the run has still been present, allowing the Falcons to gain chunks of yardage through the air as defenses continue to focus on Turner.
Against the Saints offense that continued to score, the Falcons were placed in a position where they couldn't rely on the run to produce the points as quickly as needed Turner said.
"My health has nothing to do with it," he said. "It's just the way the games have been going the past few weeks. Against a team like New Orleans, you want to keep them off the field as much as possible. We weren't able to do that with the way the situations turned out in the game."
The Falcons offensive line has experienced changes this season and Turner's fullback, Ovie Mughelli, for the last three record-breaking seasons is out for the season. Mike Cox joined the team during the bye week and the Falcons have been working to get everyone in sync and back on the same running page.
Many of the same pieces are in place that have helped Atlanta earn the respect for the run game from opposing defenses. With the run game back clicking on all cylinders, they know they can churn out yards. With the running game going strong, the Falcons offense can be difficult to stop. In Smith's four seasons with the Falcons, his team is 13-3 when they have a 100-yard rusher.
This season Atlanta is 4-1 when Turner has rushed for 100 yards or more, but even the threat of Turner enables the offense. The Falcons were 7-2 when the running back rushed for 70 yards or more.
Against Tampa the Falcons look to come together and get the ground game in action. It'll come just in time for the playoff run they've been eyeing all season.
"We just need more consistency in what we're doing run-wise and get to our good plays, our good looks that we want to run," Turner said. "Then keep running them and just get better at what we're doing; getting our chemistry down."