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Atlanta Falcons seek to re-establish their identity as hard-running team

Michael Turner feels as good as he did a couple of years ago.

Considering how he ran in Atlanta's first preseason game, Turner believes the Falcons are reclaiming an offensive identity they lacked in 2009.

Turner played just one series in a 20-10 victory Friday over Kansas City, but his brief appearance was impressive.

It wasn't so much his statistics. He ran just four times for 29 yards, but Turner burst across the line of scrimmage and into the second level of the defense like he did in '08.

"We wanted to start out fast, obviously, but that wasn't our original plan to call all those runs," Turner said Sunday. "It was the way the game was going. We just moved the ball so well on the ground that we kept it going."

The trade last year for Tony Gonzalez brought one of the NFL's best tight ends to an offense that featured Turner, second-year quarterback Matt Ryan and receiver Roddy White.

All three were coming off Pro Bowl seasons, but Turner and his 376 carries — second-most in the league — anchored the offense.

Opponents during the first two months focused first on stopping Turner to confuse Ryan and limit his options with Gonzalez and White. They were largely successful.

"It was an adjustment because defenses give you different coverages, and they had different guys playing run support," Turner said. "We had to get used to how guys were going to defend us."

By early November, Turner's production began to soar as he ran harder and the line created extra space, but he was never the same after suffering a high ankle sprain in the Week 10 loss at Carolina.

Two weeks later, Ryan hurt his toe. He and Turner were not fully healthy at the same time and on the field together for the rest of the season.

Not surprisingly, the Falcons missed the playoffs despite winning their final three games to finish 9-7. It's possible, however, they could've earned a second straight NFC wild-card berth if the running game hadn't struggled in losses at New England and Dallas.

Jason Snelling proved to be a dependable backup, but he lacks Turner's compact size and speed and Jerious Norwood's quickness. Norwood is still listed as the No. 2 running back ahead of Snelling, but he's missed nearly two weeks with a hip pointer and last season had a similar hip injury and a concussion.

Against the Chiefs, undrafted rookie Dimitri Nance of Arizona State emerged with a pair of short touchdown runs a week after performing well in a team scrimmage.

Nance, though, isn't trying to be Turner. He just wants to make the team.

"You know you have the capability of making big plays, but you have to consistently do what the coaches are asking with the right assignments and the right fits," Nance said. "I still have to come out here and work hard every day to get all that ironed out."

Regardless how the depth chart stacks up behind Turner and starting fullback Ovie Mughelli, Turner's performance will make or break the running game.

With Turner healthy and effective in 2008, the Falcons had the NFL's No. 2 rushing attack. Last season, they finished 15th, but Friday's preseason win gave a glimpse of something good.

"When we had no issues running the football, we kept running it," Smith said. "It wasn't structured that way, but we did want to establish the run early. We knew the first unit was only going to play two series and we had another idea of what we wanted to show in that second series."

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