With Michael Turner being limited at practice Thursday with a left elbow injury, it appears that speedy backup Jacquizz Rodgers could be thrust into a starting role Sunday.
FLOWERY BRANCH — This could be Jacquizz Rodgers’ week to be more than a complement to Michael Turner in the Atlanta Falcons’ running game.
Rodgers has seen a steady increase in carries and has been the team’s leading rusher in two of the last four games. Still, he has remained the clear backup to Turner, who has had more carries than Rodgers in each of Atlanta’s 12 games.
That could change Sunday at Carolina.
Turner was limited in practice Thursday for the second straight day with a left elbow injury. He had a wrap on the elbow, which he hurt in the Falcons’ win against New Orleans on Nov. 29.
Coach Mike Smith said he expects Turner will play against the Panthers. Smith said Rodgers has proved he can be the lead back if needed.
“Absolutely,” Smith said after Thursday’s practice. “Jacquizz is one of many guys we feel like deserves to get touches on our offense. If need be, we think he can take carries that other guys may get in other games.”
Rodgers has a combined 18 carries for 82 yards the last two games — his top totals for back-to-back weeks this season.
“You get a feel for the game when you touch the ball more,” Rodgers said. “Things come to you more easily when you have a better feel for the game.”
This week’s possible opportunity for Rodgers comes as Turner’s production has dipped. Turner averaged 4.0 yards per carry in the Falcons’ first eight games and only 3.0 in the last four games. He was held to 15 yards on 13 carries at New Orleans on Nov. 11 and 17 yards on 13 carries at Tampa Bay on Nov. 25.
At 5-foot-6 and 188 pounds, Rodgers can disappear behind offensive linemen, and he is quick and shifty in the open field.
Rodgers made his first impact as a rookie last season with his receiving skills. That role has expanded this season, as he ranks fourth on the team with 37 catches for 284 yards and a touchdown.
He has 274 yards rushing with a touchdown and slowly has proved he can be more than a back who plays in passing situations.
“He’s been huge for us,” tight end Tony Gonzalez said. “I was just talking about that in the meeting room, how big he’s been for us this year. With his quickness, his ability to make people miss, he’s coming up with plays in the game in our four-minute offense to close out the clock. He’s been great.”
Rodgers has never had more than 10 carries in a game. He reached that total for only the third time in his career when he rushed for 49 yards with a touchdown against Tampa Bay. He added 43 yards rushing against the Saints on Nov. 29.
The Falcons have found more ways to get the ball to Rodgers in space, where he can take advantage of his elusiveness. He has had long runs of 43, 20, 18 and 14 yards and is averaging 4.0 yards per carry.
“I’m just making plays when I’m in there so my number can be called more often,” Rodgers said. “That’s the main thing, taking advantage of my small opportunities that I do have when I get the ball.”
Rodgers said he’s preparing for a possible bigger role this week, but he added that is his mindset every week.
“All the running backs, we practice to be ready,” he said. “We all practice different situations, preparing just in case we’re in that position at any point.”
Receiver Roddy White said Rodgers could produce more big plays if he had more carries.
“He’s hard to tackle in space,” White said. “I have hardly seen anybody tackle him in space. That’s one of the attributes he brings to the team — in one-on-one matchups he doesn’t get tackled.
“It’s good to have a guy like that you can put out there that’s a matchup problem for the defense. He’s also good at screens and stuff. The more opportunities we can put the ball in his hands, it will be good.”
NOTES: Asked about Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy’s statement that the Panthers are a better team than the Falcons, despite Carolina’s 30-28 loss in Atlanta on Sept. 30, White said, “They’ve got to say something. They’re fighting, they’re holding on. They’re in a different position than we are. They’re trying to save the rest of their seaso,n and we’re trying to prepare ourselves for this playoff run.” … Cornerback Asante Samuel (right shoulder) and safety William Moore (hamstring) were held out of practice for the second straight day. Smith said he will “definitely be very cautious” with Samuel, who lasted only three plays against the Saints after first hurting the shoulder against Arizona on Nov. 18. Defensive tackle Peria Jerry (thigh) practiced on a limited basis.