While Terrance West has been the Ravens' clear starting running back, rookie Kenneth Dixon provided evidence that he could complement West — or maybe even challenge him for that role.
In Thursday night's 28-7 victory over the Cleveland Browns, Dixon carried the ball six times for 38 yards, leading the tailbacks with a 6.3-yard average. His night could have been even bigger if a 17-yard rush in the fourth quarter had not been negated by a holding penalty on right guard Vladimir Ducasse.
But more than the stats, it was the first sign of Dixon running with the kind of authority and decisiveness he had demonstrated before sustaining a strained medial collateral ligament in his left knee in a preseason game on Aug. 27.
"I feel like I'm back 100 percent, and I'm ready for the workload that the team gives me," Dixon said Thursday in the locker room underneath M&T Bank Stadium. "Everything that they give me, I just want to take advantage of. We have two great running backs out there. In the game, it gets a little tight. So I'm just waiting for my moment and taking advantage of it."
Dixon — the Ravens' last of five picks in the fourth round this year — had 87 career touchdowns at Louisiana Tech, one behind the NCAA record by Navy's Keenan Reynolds, who was selected in the sixth round by the Ravens and is now on the practice squad.
Dixon emerged in the preseason as a power back tightly coiled in a 5-foot-10, 212-pound frame.
Despite sitting out the team's final exhibition contest at the New Orleans Saints, Dixon finished the preseason as the team leader with 107 rushing yards and 4.9 per carry. At home against the Detroit Lions in the third preseason game, he appeared to be stopped for a short gain, but continued to churn his legs and moved the pile another five yards.
Dixon was injured while getting tackled by a scrum of Lions — led by former Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata — just one yard short of the end zone in the second quarter. It was his welcome-to-the-league moment, and forced him to sit out the first four games of the regular season.
Dixon is still reacclimating himself to the rigors of the NFL and trying to catch up on some of the growth he had experienced before the injury.
"Just getting back into the flow of things, getting back to the speed of the game," he said. "I was out for four weeks, and the game doesn't stop. So I had to come back and be prepared to play. I just got back into the flow of things, and it felt good to be back."
As painful as the knee injury looked — his lower leg bent under the weight of tacklers — Dixon was not placed on injured reserve. And his anticipated return played a role in the franchise's decision to release veteran tailback Justin Forsett on Oct. 4.
Fullback Kyle Juszczyk said he has seen glimpses of the Dixon who flashed in the preseason.
"I think Kenneth is just gaining confidence as he goes," Juszczyk said. "He's a rookie, and hasn't been out there much. So every carry, he's just going to continue to get better and be more confident. He always runs hard. … You can always count on him to run hard, but I think he's just gaining confidence."
After playing 18 of 212 potential snaps in his first three games, Dixon has been on the field for 26 plays in back-to-back games against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland. In the first half Thursday, he caught five passes for 42 yards, including two grabs that earned first downs. His only carry in the first two quarters went for 11 yards and another first down.
In the second half, he gained 27 yards on five rushes to help the Ravens (5-4 overall and 3-0 in the AFC North) post 232 yards of offense and 22 points in the second half.
"I think he's back, health-wise," coach John Harbaugh said. "He got back from the knee about four weeks ago and has steadily looked better. I told him this week, I said, 'This is your breakout game. You look like you're ready.' He did a great job."
Dixon said he was grateful for the expanded workload the coaches have bestowed upon him.
"I had some downhill runs where I got my pads squared going downhill, and we had fun," he said.
The hierarchy among the running backs, for now, is clear. West is the featured tailback, Dixon is the backup, and Lorenzo Taliaferro and Javorius "Buck" Allen are battling for snaps. Juszczyk joked that no running back is fully happy with the number of touches he gets, but Dixon said running backs coach Thomas Hammock has set the tone for his group.
"We're close in our room," he said. "No one man ever gets the glory. It gets spread out among all the running backs. We give Coach Hammock all the credit. We're all a group, and we're all out there together. We're all a part of the show, holding it high and tight."
As positive as Thursday night's showing was for Dixon, he declined to turn any elation after the victory into a personal campaign for more playing time.
"It can be a springboard for all of us," he said. "We got our third division win, and it's off from there. It's all about championships. It's not about me."