|Atlanta's Michael Turner ran for 1,699 yards in 2008, while the Cardinals rushed for just 1,178. (Doug Benc/Getty Images)|
Running game a yardstick
Atlanta's is in step, Arizona's is awful
GLENDALE, Ariz. - The Atlanta Falcons can run away with a wild-card victory over Arizona tomorrow, if regular-season history means anything.
The Falcons, led by Michael Turner, have one of the best rushing games in the NFL. The Cardinals have the worst.
"It's no secret. We know what they're going to come in and try to do," Arizona linebacker Karlos Dansby said.
Turner went from San Diego backup to a Pro Bowl powerhouse in Atlanta, helping the Falcons turn a tumultuous 4-12 finish last season into a playoff run in 2008. He rushed for 1,699 yards, second only to Adrian Peterson in the NFL and 521 yards more than the entire Arizona team.
"That's at the core of our belief as a coaching staff, that you have to be able to run the football and control the line of scrimmage," Atlanta coach Mike Smith said, "because when you do that, it opens up the rest of the offense."
Turner said the Falcons (11-5) don't need to resort to any tricks or big surprises.
"The team that makes the least amount of mistakes is going to win the football game," he said. "Some guys try to make the game seem like they've got to make that extra play or something like that, but just stick with what got us here. If we execute, we'll be fine."
The Cardinals (9-7), dead last among 32 NFL teams in rushing, have returned to Edgerrin James as their lead back after banishing him to the bench for seven games. James gained 100 yards in Arizona's 34-21 victory over Seattle last Sunday.
James acknowledges he never bought into Arizona's pass-crazy offense.
"They did what they had to do, but at the end of the day, that's all over with," James said after yesterday's practice. "Now it's time to get serious. We're through playing around. Everything is serious and I'm here to try to make plays and try to help this team move forward."
When Arizona is out of the playoffs, James knows he is gone from the Cardinals.
"I think the feeling's mutual," he said, laughing. "It's not something I'm going to contest."
But James, appearing in his 10th playoff game, insists he's not motivated to show that he still has what it takes to succeed.
"If I felt I couldn't play, I wouldn't play," he said. "I don't have to play this game. I've done everything the right way. I'm not in a situation where I'm financially strapped or I don't have the statistics or whatever. I play this game because I like to play this game, because I can, and because I want to."
Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, the AP offensive rookie of the year, said having Turner and backup running back Jerious Norwood has been invaluable for his success.
"That's a huge part of it," Ryan said. "I think that any time, regardless of whether you're a rookie or a veteran, any time you have a run game that's been as successful as ours has been this year, it helps you as a quarterback."
Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said he recognizes much of Atlanta's offense because he and Atlanta offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey were together on Bill Cowher's staff in Pittsburgh. Whisenhunt was tight ends coach before succeeding Mularkey as Steelers offensive coordinator.
"They've got a couple of good running backs. Their offensive line works very well together, and they work hard to finish blocks," Whisenhunt said. "They have a lot of confidence in their running game even if they don't get a lot of positive carry early, they'll stay with it and eventually they'll break one."
Arizona's defense has had a penchant for missed tackles, a trait that could prove disastrous against the Falcons.
In Game 14, the Cardinals gave up 239 yards on the ground in a 35-14 home loss to Minnesota, and a week later surrendered 183 yards rushing in a 47-7 loss to the Patriots.
"We lost focus, man," Dansby said. "We're here now. It's time for us to step up and do what we're capable of doing."
Even the Cardinals would seem to have a chance on the ground against an Atlanta team that ranks 25th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed.
"I really feel they are going to try to run the ball on us," Atlanta defensive end John Abraham said. "For a couple of weeks we have been giving up runs here and there."
Moving the ball on the ground would keep Arizona's offense off the field. The Cardinals, the No. 2 passing offense, should be back at full strength with the return of wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who missed the last two games with a sore shoulder.
Quarterback Kurt Warner isn't so sure his team even needs much of a ground game to win.
"Definitely it would be nice, like last week you balance it out and make it hard on the defense," he said, "but we've been successful throwing the football all over the field this year, too, and if that's what we've got to do, I'm happy to do that as well."