Ahmad Dixon had a very interesting 2014 offseason. After being drafted by the Cowboys out of Baylor in the seventh round, Dixon was sent packing after training camp only to get signed to the Vikings practice squad days later. A mere six days after that, he got a call from Phil Emery to join the Bears on the 53-man roster. With just a few days to get prepared for the Week Two game against the 49ers, Dixon was quickly worked into the special-teams role he took from Demontre Hurst.
And work he did. He described himself to the Chicago Tribune as "a passionate, enthusiastic player who’s also very physical. I can run. I can hit. And I think I’m coachable," a description that matches well to the scouting report we got from WCG reader and Baylor fan cms186 when Dixon was first signed:
He is an athletic, hard-hitting (sometimes a little too hard for his own good!) safety, but he played most of his college career at nickelback. [He made] the move to safety in his senior year, where he looked much better. His assets are his hard tackling and his ability in run support, but he lacks a bit in pass coverage and has a few attitude problems.
While the Bears signed Dixon primarily to play special teams, those two key skills he displayed as a safety - running and hitting - are the only two he'll need on coverage and return units.
It's tough to catch the mechanics of a special teams play without the benefit of the all-22 view, so let's take that bird's eye view of Dixon on the first of his two big special teams plays, his fumble recovery that led to a Bears touchdown:
Dixon was timed at a 4.64 in the 40 coming out of college, but as the tape consistently shows, he plays like he's the fastest man on the field. He comes off of snap from his split-right position with a strong break to the inside of his blocker, maintaining his acceleration through the initial jam. And while Dixon starts out by going stride for stride with his blocker, as the two continue down field, Dixon throws it into that extra gear and gain a few yards of separation.
That little bit of separation was all he needed when the Jets return-man muffed the ball. Dixon dove in and scooped it up before another Jet was able to figure out what happened, much less arrive on the scene to attempt a recovery.
While this Bears roster has plenty of room for improvement as the injuries pile up, one of the biggest holes both last season and in Week 1 was on special teams. Time and again, Phil Emery has decided not to spend extra money to retain the core special-teamers that Jerry Angelo and Lovie Smith coveted so much: Devin Hester, Blake Costanzo, Craig Steltz, and Eric Weems all got their walking papers one way or another this off-season. Emery bet on his ability to find talent to replace these core special-teamers, and while it looked like that bet was not going to pay off during the preseason, we finally saw some payoff against the Jets this week.
Speed kills, and we see a good example of Dixon proving just that on his other splash play of the night, this punishing tackle for no gain:
Again, Dixon shows his special teams experience from college, getting a clean break off of the line and outrunning anyone who could block him from there. With Pat O'Donnell giving the punt just enough hang time for Dixon to get down the field, the Bears safety is able to blow up the Jets return-man before he can take his first step.
Dixon doesn't just bring pure speed to the special-teams unit, and he flashes a good bit of power on this next play. Here, watch him and Senorise Perry (32) almost push the edge defender right into the punt:
While I don't think this "use a blocker to block the punt" approach is going to notch many blocks, it's a pretty safe way to get after the punter - no free first down for the opposing offense if someone with the same jersey runs into the punter after the kick is away. Better still, if the opposing blocker isn't able to corral both Bears, someone is going to get a free run at the punter. No payoff here, but a good bit of power by Dixon and Perry nonetheless.
Dixon was pressed into playing a bit of safety as the injuries piled up this week, but I don't want to see him playing safety in the fourth quarter against Aaron Rodgers just yet. Still, Dixon shows every potential to be a strong special teams player for the Bears this season: he has speed enough to outrun coverage, and ball-sense enough to be at the right place at the right time. With seasoning, he has the upside potential to take the Steltz position on the roster, providing replacement-level safety play when needed and above-average special teams ability week in and week out.
Here's to hoping that with more plays like Dixon's, special teams can continue to prove an asset instead of a liability as the Bears work to get an early two-game lead over their greatest division rival on Sunday. What do you make of Joe DeCamillis' new crew of special-teamers three games in?