In their third exhibition game Sunday, the 49ers’ list of missing front-line players was long.
Brandon Jacobs, LaMichael James, Mario Manningham and Chris Culliver didn’t make the trip. Linebackers Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman didn’t play, and neither did tight end Delanie Walker.
But with roster cut-down day approaching Monday, several jobs were on the line in the 49ers’ 29-24 victory over the Broncos in Denver – a game in which David Akers (in a replay of 2011) made five field goals and Vernon Davis caught a 44-yard touchdown pass from Alex Smith. Players on the bubble in several areas had one final chance to make an impression to make the opening-day roster.
One of those might have been Anthony Dixon, the third-year running back from Mississippi State.
With Jacobs and James unavailable and Frank Gore playing just the first quarter, the 49ers gave Dixon a workout, and the semi-forgotten veteran produced with 58 yards on 13 carries, including a 26-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. Dixon also caught two passes for 11 yards.
With Gore, Jacobs, James and Kendall Hunter all assured roster spots, Dixon knew going into Sunday’s game that he needed to continue his strong training camp play.
As Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group noted this past week, with a good performance against Denver Dixon could either cement his spot on the roster – at least until the final cut-down date of Aug. 31 – or show the rest of the NFL what he can do.
“They’ve made more competition in the room,” Dixon told Inman, of the battle at running back. “When you see that, you’ve got to step up your game. I’d be crazy not to. It’s made me better, though.”
Dixon was coming off a performance against the Houston Texans last week that offensive coordinator Greg Roman called “one of his best games since I’ve been here.”
Added Roman: “He needs to have another great one this week.”
With the pressure on and the coaching staff watching his every move, Dixon produced against the Broncos. At one point he even suffered an injury to his arm, but returned to the game.
Dixon’s touchdown run showed both power and speed. On third-and-inches, he took the handoff, burst through an arm tackle at the hole at left guard and sprinted into the clear for a score.
Dixon’s career, however, is going in the wrong direction.
As a rookie in 2010, he was used often, carrying the ball 70 times for 237 yards and a 3.4-yards per attempt average, while also catching five passes. Last season, he carried the ball just 29 times for 87 yards (3.0 average) and two TDs, and caught just one pass. Now, with more running backs added in the offseason, Dixon has known he’s a man on the bubble.
He spent all offseason working out at the team’s facility and told Inman he couldn’t wait for training camp to begin.
Soon, he’ll find out if all the work has paid off with another season in San Francisco – or if he’ll have to go elsewhere.