Wednesday’s practice had just ended when Dakota Dozier made his way to the nearest padded goalpost. For the next 10 minutes, the versatile Vikings backup put himself through a series of hand-placement drills designed to sharpen the speed and precision an offensive lineman needs to survive that split second after the ball is snapped.
“In the NFL, inside hands win,” said Dozier, who will start in Chicago on Sunday as right guard Josh Kline recovers from a concussion that kept him out of practice all week.
“To be successful, you want to have good targets for your hands. And if you can be accurate with your strikes, it makes it easier to win your block. Hands inside, you win.”
Chicago’s vaunted defenders feel the same way. And one of them figures to be tackle Akiem Hicks, a powerful 6-4, 352-pound tackle who outweighs Dozier by 40 pounds.
Hicks did not practice all week because of a right knee injury and is listed as questionable for Sunday. If he does start, it will be the 85th start of his eight-year career.
“He’s definitely good at giving you the long arm and blowing you back,” said Dozier, who has never faced Hicks. “He’s definitely top 10 in the league. I’m excited because any opportunity to go play a guy this good, it shows you what you got.”
Be careful what you ask for, Dakota. This Hicks fella has spent the past three years wreaking havoc in the Vikings’ backfield.
In Week 5 last year, he had a sack and a career-high five tackles for loss in Chicago’s 25-20 victory. Twelve weeks later, he had a season-high 1½ sacks.
In 2016, his first year with the Bears, and 2017, Hicks tied his career high with two two-sack games against the Vikings.
Hicks moves around depending on the offensive formation, but it’s logical to suggest Bears defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano will want Hicks to test a backup making his ninth start in six NFL seasons.
“[Hicks is] extremely athletic, extremely quick, very cerebral,” Pagano said when asked about Hicks’ ability to get the “inside hands” on offensive linemen.
“He can tell formationwise … personnel, down and distance, all those things, what’s coming, what blocking schemes he’s going to get.”
There are subtle ways the Vikings can help Dozier and their other linemen get those “inside hands” on Hicks. Pagano discussed that this week in Chicago.
“They’ll get up on you and they’ll go quick count and they’ll start running,” Pagano said of the Vikings’ zone blocking scheme. “And if you’re late off the ball, you don’t get your hands on these guys, [it’s] going to show up.”
Dozier was a fourth-round draft pick of the Jets. The Vikings signed him this offseason because he’s a “Dennison guy.” That means he’s well-versed in and physically suited to the zone schemes employed by line coach and run-game coordinator Rick Dennison, who held the same titles with the Jets last year.
“He’s a smart guy, he plays hard, he’s athletic, he’s got good balance,” Dennison said. “And he’s played multiple positions for me. Even last year, shoot, I played him at fullback, a little tight end. … He does the right things and he does it well.”
Said coach Mike Zimmer: “We expect him to go in and play good.”
This will be Dozier’s second start in three games. He stepped in for injured left guard Pat Elflein in the Week 2 loss at Green Bay.
“I’ve had other coaches, but Rico and I just really hit it off,” Dozier said. “I enjoy the way he coaches, the way he teaches it in the classroom and takes it to the field. It makes it easier to learn and not just memorize plays.
“If you can learn offense, you can react and respond to things so much faster than just memorizing, ‘OK, if he’s here, I do this.’ Understanding concepts helps you learn and helps you play faster. Seeing the man Rico is and the coach he is, I said, ‘I’ll follow you wherever.’ ”
As a rookie out of Furman, Dozier was a gameday inactive 15 times but still won the Bill Hampton Award as the Jets’ rookie who best displays professionalism in the locker room.
“That was pretty cool,” he said. “To me, that means you’re never the last one in the building and you’re never the first one out of the building. You ask a lot of questions. You hunger to learn.”
And you punch padded goalposts because you know, “Inside hands win.”