CHARLOTTE -- The Carolina Panthers know they're in for a heavy dose of the run this week against Atlanta, which has been the case every week so far.
Atlanta's Michael Turner enters this week's game as the league's leading rusher, the same way Minnesota's Adrian Peterson did a week ago. Even in the opener, San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson was coming off the 2007 rushing title. They've also faced Chicago rookie Matt Forte, who's fourth in the league.
Tomlinson, battling toe problems, is the low man of the group, a shabby 17th.
"It's a great challenge as far as their running game because they've got the No. 1 running attack right now," Panthers cornerback Ken Lucas said. "We know they're going to try to come in and pound it against us, because that's what they saw Minnesota do, what they saw San Diego do. We do have our work cut out for us."
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The good news is that they've held up fairly well so far.
They rank 18th in rushing defense, which doesn't sound that great. But considering they're allowing 113 yards per game, it compares favorably to Minnesota's 161.7 rushing average or Chicago's 152 per game.
The Falcons are averaging 203 yards per game, with Jerious Norwood assisting Turner. That's why rookie quarterback Matt Ryan's looking so good. He knows he doesn't have to do it all himself.
"They put him in a great position to not make too many mistakes," Lucas said. "Their running game, they're not No. 1 for no reason. They run, they stick with it, they believe they can out-physical the other team and we've got to go out there and show them on Sunday that we're a more physical team than they are.
"It's all about who imposes their will on the other team the most. The team that does that comes out on top."
So far this season, Turner's been doing that to other people.
Though he's long been regarded as a quality back, he's broken out of the shadows this year. He spent his first four seasons backing up Tomlinson in San Diego, and combined for 1,257 yards and six touchdowns in his limited role.
But when he played, the 5-10, 244-pounder displayed a physical, explosive (5.5 yards per carry) style that made him no shock to most.
"That's hard to say," coach John Fox replied when asked if he was surprised by Turner's production. "He was very productive in San Diego; he just didn't have a lot of opportunities. But when he was in there, he made the most of them. Eventually, they gave him an opportunity, and Atlanta did good to get him."
Falcons coach Mike Smith defended the decision to give a six-year, $34.5 million deal (with $15 million guaranteed) to a player with one career start, saying he and new Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff agreed he was a perfect fit for their rebuilding.
"We wanted to have a strong running game and a physical presence," Smith said. "Michael, as a running back, has that skill set. To be able to run the football, you also have to have an offensive line that buys into that philosophy, as well. Our offensive line has just as much to do with Michael's success as Michael. They have done a nice job run-blocking for us these first couple of games.
"We were really just trying to set the foundation of what we wanted to establish, and we knew early on that we had to have a guy that could carry the load."
The soft-spoken Turner has confidence in his abilities, but is humbled that success has come so quickly. He knew he'd eventually get a chance to prove himself, despite being stuck behind one of the league's top players for four years.
"It was one of my goals to be a starter and to be productive at the same time, so I'm enjoying the opportunity," Turner said. "It was more of a mental challenge (in San Diego) because you know you have to go out there and be productive. But you just have to be patient, and it was the mental aspect of being patient and still working hard every week was the tough part."
That humility was also a part of what made him attractive to the Falcons, who had public relations battles to wage that were as serious as rebuilding a football team.
"Besides the skill set that he has, Michael is an outstanding person, too," Smith said. "That's evident by the way he basically was in the shadows of the best running back in this league arguably in LT. You never heard Mike complain about needing more carries. He just went about his business.
"That says a lot about what kind of person he is. He has great character, and he has been very productive running the football for us in these first three games."