Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez (88) makes a catch over Carolina Panthers' Thomas Williams during Sunday's game at the Georgia Dome.
FLOWERY BRANCH -- Michael Turner kept running the ball. Matt Ryan worked in some short passes. It wasn't exactly stretching the field, but it sure worked for the Atlanta Falcons.
Maybe they've found their identity again.
The Falcons gave up a huge part of their future to draft receiver Julio Jones, all with the intent of creating more big plays on offense. But Sunday's 31-17 victory over the Carolina Panthers looked more in line with past years: Turner took care of business on the ground with 27 punishing carries, while Ryan directed a passing game that didn't take a lot of chance downfield. They didn't even need Jones, who sat out with a hamstring injury.
Coach Mike Smith insisted Monday that his offense, as always, set up a game plan that had the best chance of working against Carolina's defensive scheme.
But it was clear the Falcons (3-3) wanted to pound away with Turner, a battering ram of a back who seems to get more effective as his carries go up. He finished with 139 yards on 27 runs -- both season highs.
"Each week, we have 'musts' that are presented to our players," Smith said. "One of the musts this past week was the need to establish the run. We knew the way they would defend us would give us an opportunity. We didn't know how many carries Michael would have. But he got the ball rolling early, so we kept feeding him. We felt like he was in a groove."
The 247-pound Turner actually did much of his running on the outside, a break from his normal style of keeping it in the middle of the field. Nearly half his carries -- 13 of 27 -- were outside the tackles, and those plays accounted for the bulk (105) of his yards.
"We felt like we would be able to get him to the second level on the perimeter," Smith said. "When Michael is coming around the corner, weighing 245 pounds or whatever, some guys are not necessarily going to take a clean shot at him. It made for some positive runs. I though Mike ran the ball extremely well."
Turner and his blockers had Carolina gasping at the end. On a clinching drive in the closing minutes, the Falcons simply lined up with two tight ends and a fullback to lead the way. Everyone in the building knew who was getting the ball, but the Panthers still couldn't stop him.
"It wears defenses out, I believe," Turner said. "It also plays to one of our biggest strengths as an offense. There is no question the rushing attack is a big part of our team identity."
Ryan, who was averaging more than 39 passes a game, threw it only 22 times against Carolina. He completed 14 to nine different receivers, keeping most of his throws short and manageable. Only five of his 14 completions went for more than 10 yards, but a couple of well-timed deep shots burned the Panthers big time.
Roddy White drew a pair of interference penalties in the end zone, putting the ball at the 1 and setting up two of Atlanta's touchdowns.
"We got back to our old-school style of offense," tight end Tony Gonzalez said. "We ran the ball effectively, mixed up the run and pass plays, and confused the defense with various formations."
The defense had some rough moments early in the game, especially trying to contain rookie sensation Cam Newton, but really came through at the end. Carolina's final four possessions went this way: three-and-out, three-and-out, interception, interception.
Most encouraging for the Falcons is the play of new defensive end Ray Edwards. After a slow start, he's had a sack in each of the last two games.
"I really think Ray is becoming more comfortable in our scheme," Smith said. "Sacks are sometimes overrated. But we're seeing the type of pressure we need to see from Ray. I like the way he's playing."
Smith doesn't like what he's seeing on third down. Carolina converted of eight of its first nine chances in those situations, and the Atlanta coach was especially perturbed about the Panthers getting what they needed from distances of 9, 10 and 13 yards.
"We keep scratching where it's itching," Smith said, "and believe me, we have hives all over in terms of third-down defense. We've not been effective and not been efficient on third down all season."
But at least a season of big expectations feels back on track heading into Sunday's game at surprising Detroit (5-1). With Tampa Bay knocking off New Orleans, the Falcons are only a game out of first in the NFC South, trailing both the Buccaneers and the Saints.
"We played well in all phases," Gonzalez said. "It seemed like we were clicking out there."
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