LAKE FOREST — If you have yet to witness the Michael Dickson Experience, you’re in for a treat on Monday night. That is, if you’re not a Chicago Bears fan who hates seeing their team’s offense backed up against its own end zone all game.
Dickson, the Seattle Seahawks’ rookie punter by way of Australia, is already reaching folk-hero status in the Pacific Northwest with his prolific kicking ability. And yes, he has a mere one NFL game under his belt.
But, oh, what a debut Dickson turned in last Sunday at Denver: Four of his six punts landed inside the 20-yard line, including a 69-yarder that landed at the Denver 6 and a 59-yarder that pinned the Broncos at their own 2. He averaged 59 yards per punt, allowed a total of 9 return yards and had zero touchbacks. There were only five NFL games all last season where a punter had five or more kicks with an average of more than 55 yards — and Dickson easily cleared that Week 1.
Altitude-assisted because of Denver or not, that’s about as good as it gets for a first game.
“Boy, he's good. He's real good,” Bears special-teams coordinator Chris Tabor said Friday. “He doesn't give you a lot of chances to return the ball, so we've got our hands full with this guy. It's going to be an interesting challenge for us.”
There’s a reason why the Seahawks traded up for Dickson in April even though they had beloved Jon Ryan — the franchise’s leader in punts, yardage and punting average — on the roster. Seattle moved up to take Dickson, who actually declared after his junior season, in Round 5 (149th overall).
That’s the highest a punter has been taken in six years, but after Dickson’s brilliant career at Texas it was more shocking he didn’t go higher. He set school punting records, was named the Ray Guy Award (nation's best punter) winner last season and actually was named Texas Bowl game MVP after dropping 10 of his 11 punts in inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.
Not bad for a converted Australian Rules player who had never punted an American football until January 2015.
Dickson beat out Ryan in a spirited preseason battle and already has won over scores of Seattle fans with his exploits. What has made Dickson so impressive is not just his distance, hang time and placement, but also the knuckling quality of his kicks that makes the ball difficult to track on returns.
Dickson also has impressed the Bears’ special-teamers in one other significant way.
“What’s most impressive to me is his operation time,” Bears tight end Ben Braunecker told PFW. “It’s one of the fastest get-offs, if not the fastest that I’ve ever seen.
“I’ve looked at his hit chart [even going back to Texas], and the way he can place the ball and get it off so fast is really, really good.”
Bears special-teams ace Benny Cunningham isn’t quite ready to anoint Dickson the next great thing, having played with All Pro punter Johnny Hekker with the Rams and touting the Bears’ punter — Pat O’Donnell — as under-appreciated. But even Cunningham had to admit that Dickson is “doing some really special things so far” and that his quick get-off time “changes the way we rush him.”
Added Tabor: “It's been deadly.”
That likely means longer fields that Mitch Trubisky and the Bears’ offense must drive on Monday night.
The Bears had three drives Sunday night in Green Bay start inside their own 20-yard line, and they ended in mixed results. On their first drive against the Packers, they started at their own 14 and drove 86 yards for the game-opening touchdown. On the other two backed-up drives, they went three-and-out in the second quarter and fumbled on what was their final drive of the 24-23 loss; they netted 25 yards from scrimmage on eight plays on those two possessions combined.
Bears head coach Matt Nagy said the team’s play calling doesn’t really change when drives start inside the 20-yard line, per se — it’s really when they’re backed up ever farther that adjustments need to be made to what the Bears do on offense.
“I think where you get into the issue is when you’re inside the 8 [yard line],” Nagy said Friday. “Now you’ve got to be careful because anytime you drop back you’ve got your goal line sitting right there — penalties, holding [calls], [the risk of a] safety.
“Once you start getting a little bit tighter — I think it’s more on the punts. You get back there in that corner there and you can’t recover from those punts.”
The Bears experienced that in the preseason game at Denver when the Broncos pinned the Bears down at their 5-yard line, resulting in one of their worst offensive results of the exhibition season. Jordan Howard was cut down for a 4-yard loss, Bobby Massie was called for a false start and Mitch Trubisky was tackled after a fumble for a safety in that third preseason game.
Tarik Cohen has good return ability on punts for the Bears, with a 42-yarder in Week 1, but the Bears are coming off a season — under the old coaching staff, of course — in which they had 21 possessions that started at their own 10-yard line and in. On those drives they scored only one touchdown and three field goals, with four turning into interceptions and the rest punts.
If Monday turns into a field-position game, watch out. The Broncos were able to overcome some awful starting spots to win in Week 1, but the Bears appear to know that they’re facing a verifiable weapon in Dickson, even with this game being his second regular-season contest.
“Everything has to be crisper and the execution better against him,” Braunecker said. “It’s pretty obvious when you watch him.”