Kenneth Dixon ran last weekend like a man thrilled to be playing football again.
Missing almost two years of your career can raise your appreciation for the game. The Ravens’ third-year running back missed all of 2017 and most of this season with knee injuries. He also served two NFL suspensions – one for performance-enhancing drugs and another for substance abuse – totaling six games last season.
But Dixon is back now, and he heads into Sunday’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers looking to build off his impressive Week 14 performance, when he had 59 yards on eight carries against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Head Coach John Harbaugh said he could envision Dixon being a bigger part of the offense down the stretch, with just three games remaining and the Ravens (7-6) fighting for a playoff spot.
“Kenneth played really well – ran hard, broke tackles, made people miss, did a good job in pass protection,” Harbaugh said. “He’s getting more comfortable with the offense again, assignment-wise and things like that. So yes, I’d definitely expect to see Kenneth’s role grow based on the fact he’s doing well with what he’s been given so far. You continue to earn more as you go.”
The Ravens’ running back situation has played out far differently than many people expected when the season began. Alex Collins started the season as the lead back, with Buck Allen and Dixon also in the rotation. Dixon was the Ravens’ leading rusher (44 yards) Week 1 during a 47-3 rout of the Buffalo Bills. However, Dixon injured his knee in that game and spent the next two months on injured reserve – designated to return.
By the time Dixon returned to the active roster last month, the Ravens’ running back picture had dramatically changed. Rookie Gus Edwards has made a rapid rise from the practice squad to lead back. Collins has been placed on injured reserve. Ty Montgomery has joined the rotation after being acquired in a trade with the Green Bay Packers.
Meanwhile, Dixon is a wild card the Ravens can play in December, a back with fresh legs. He has a strong desire to realize the promise he showed in 2016 as a rookie when he averaged 4.3 yards per carry, playing 12 games and rushing for 382 yards on 88 attempts.
“Being out two years makes you feel low, that you can’t stay healthy,” Dixon said. “I just kept a chip on my shoulder and kept battling. I really just wanted to play football and be with the guys. I love football. I never wanted to give it up. I appreciate the game a lot more, respect the game a lot more.”
Dixon’s ability to change direction quickly is a nice counter to Edwards, a power back with a punishing style. The key for Dixon is to stay healthy. Part of that depends on luck, but Dixon said he is doing his part to stay on the field.
“I did a lot of extra work with my body,” Dixon said. “I’m doing do a lot more maintenance on my body. I changed the way I prepared for the games. … It was feeling great out there Sunday, but I just tried to take advantage when I had the chance. I’m just putting it out there on the field and playing.”
Since Lamar Jackson entered the starting lineup four weeks ago, the Ravens have been the NFL’s top-rushing team. Now that Jackson has been officially named the starting quarterback, Dixon thinks the Ravens’ running game won’t be easy for opponents to deal with.
“It definitely helps when you have a running quarterback, because they have to respect two runners on the field at all times,” Dixon said. “Lamar does a good job of reading it well and pulling the ball when he has to. Having two runners on the field can really hurt teams.”
But Dixon is no longer hurting. He is helping, eager to play a part in December football and January football as well.
“It would mean a lot to get to the playoffs,” Dixon said. “That’s what we strive for at the beginning, when we take the field at OTA’s. We’ve got our opportunity.”