Preston: Ravens' Kenneth Dixon starting to emerge as a game-changer at running back

The biggest play of the Ravens’ 20-12 win over the Buccaneers on Sunday might have occurred with 12:03 left in the second quarter and Tampa Bay ahead by six points.

On the Ravens’ first play after a Buccaneers touchdown, running back Kenneth Dixon ran over right guard, bounced outside, and stiff-armed some Tampa Bay player into next week before being tackled after a 17-yard gain.

Right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. started to get excited. Left tackle Ronnie Stanley started flexing. The Ravens started jumping around as if they had hit the lottery, and then they dominated with a running game featuring Dixon and rookie Gus Edwards.

Edwards has become the team’s featured back in recent weeks, but Dixon’s emergence as the No. 2 running back is becoming clearer. With an offense built around the run, it’s not enough to have just one running back going into the December playoff chase and possibly the postseason itself.

Eventually, maybe in the near future, Dixon might become the No. 1 running back. As a fourth-round pick in the 2016 draft, he rushed for 382 yards and two touchdowns that season as the backup to Terrance West of Towson University and Northwestern High. Dixon also caught 30 passes for 162 yards that season.

“He brings some physicality to it,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of Dixon. “He makes people miss, breaks tackles. Really, if you want to run the ball, and you want to have a good running game, that’s what you need running backs doing. You need running backs making plays.”

“I thought Kenny sparked us a lot during this game,” Harbaugh said. “He had a couple big runs in there where guys had him, they had him hemmed in, and he found a way to get key first downs to keep us on the field. At the end, you have to stay on the field on offense. If you can do that, you have a chance to generate some points. Kenny did a great job of that.”

Dixon, who was activated from injured reserve Dec. 1, carried eight times for 59 yards last week against the Kansas City Chiefs and finished with 48 yards rushing on 11 carries Sunday. He wasn’t the marquee runner. That job belonged to Edwards, who had 104 yards on 19 carries. But Tampa Bay had Edwards and the Ravens bottled up for most of the first quarter and the Ravens needed to answer Tampa Bay’s eight-play, 51-yard scoring drive.

Dixon got the Ravens pumped with the run. He had several more like that on which he just ran over or around tacklers. He’s isn’t always pretty, but he usually gets positive yards just on sheer body lean.

“That run was a good run, great stuff,” Edwards said of Dixon’s 17-yard run. “He stiff-armed him. I mean he stiff-armed. That’s a running back doing that. I feed off that stuff. I fed off that play.”

The timing couldn’t have been better. The Ravens had been hoping to find a breakaway running back or a pass-catching threat out of the backfield to complement Edwards.

But they have a possible home run hitter in rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson, who forces defenses to stay wide and guard against him getting to the perimeter. It’s not ideal to have your quarterback running the ball 20 times a game, but the Ravens can’t worry about that now.

If Jackson gets hurt, so be it. The objective is to win as many games as possible now and worry about his throwing motion and a stronger passing game going into the offseason and into next season.

It’s a priority is to find a stable mate for Edwards, and they might have done it with Dixon. And their styles are very similar. It’s one cut and downhill.

They do bring different strengths, but I do believe that they’re similar in the sense that they both run very hard. It’s tough for the first guy to make that tackle,” Stanley said.

It helps a lot when you’ve got a guy that’s hitting the holes like that, really hitting those small seams. That’s what really gets the run game going.”

In March 2017 Dixon was suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. Four months later he suffered a torn meniscus in his left knee, which caused him to miss the entire season.

He was put on injured reserve with a knee injury in Week 1 this season but now appears to be settling in. The Ravens seldom use Buck Allen anymore, and on Sunday they made another running back, Ty Montgomery, inactive.

Dixon could split time with Edwards in the first half of games or come in as the closer when the Ravens have a lead in the second.

The Ravens have options with Dixon, who is close to being in top shape, but not there yet.

Dixon and Edwards say they like their respective roles.

“As long as I’m having good burst and going out there and competing at a high level, I think I’ll be all right,” Dixon said. “We’ve got a great running backs room and which running back is up we’re all going to support him. Today was Gus’ day and he did a really good job of taking care of the football and running downhill.”

Edwards said it was Dixon’s day, too.

“Regardless who is out there we support each other and he gave us some energy today,” Edwards said.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

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