New Orleans is filled with superstars from the Ravens and 49ers right now in advance of Super Bowl XLVII, but Baltimore's chances in the big game could have more to do with a player who's not even on the team's 53- man roster.
It's practice squad quarterback Dennis Dixon's job to mimic San Francisco signal-caller Colin Kaepernick in the Pistol offense during the Ravens' practice sessions, and the University of Oregon product is uniquely equipped to do it.
A two-time All-Pac-10 selection with the Ducks, Dixon was once on the cutting edge of the read-option attack which has engulfed the NFL in 2012. The Oakland native also has quite a bit in common with the 49ers' star quarterback.
Like Kaepernick, Dixon was once a highly recruited baseball player, and ranked among the top passing and rushing quarterbacks in college. In fact, Dixon was so good on the diamond he was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the 2003 Major League Baseball Draft and enjoyed a short professional career in the Atlanta Braves system before turning back to football.
Kaepernick, of course, was a two-time all-state baseball player in California with a 92 mph fastball who was eventually drafted by the Chicago Cubs before deciding football was his future and heading off to the University of Nevada.
Dixon ended up being drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the fifth round of the 2008 NFL Draft and spent four years in the Steel City before relocating to Baltimore in 2012.
He won't even be dressed on Super Bowl Sunday, but his impact during the week is immeasurable. At 6-foot-2, 200 pounds Dixon doesn't quite have Kaepernick's measureables, but his familiarity with the read-option could be the difference for a Ravens team which isn't all that used to seeing it.
Remember for all the talk about how en vogue the read-option is, only four NFL teams used it on a significant basis during the 2012 season, and Baltimore only saw it once, during a 31-28 overtime loss to Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins.
Although the Ravens lost to the 'Skins, RG3 sprained his knee in the game and it was actually conventional drop-back quarterback Kirk Cousins who brought Washington back late before the 'Skins won it in overtime thanks in large part to a 64-yard punt return by Richard Crawford.
Griffin, probably the most dynamic of all the read-option signal-callers, finished with 242 yards passing and added just 34 more rushing after Dixon mimicked him in practice during the week leading up to the game.
"I know he's fast, he can run, but RG3 was a little quicker, I think, and probably a little faster," Ravens star safety Ed Reed said when comparing Griffin and Kaepernick. "You're pretty much getting some of the same things, but not totally."
So Dixon is now reaching into his read-option bag of tricks, playing the role of Rich Little and "Kaepernicking" a bit in practice.
"He did it a couple of times in practice -- him and (Ravens backup quarterback) Tyrod (Taylor)," Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs joked. "So, they're having fun being him. It's a fun offense to run; it's not a very fun offense to play against. But they're enjoying it."
For all the talk about how difficult read-option quarterbacks like Griffin, Cam Newton and Russell Wilson have made things for opposing defenses, it's Kaepernick who has emerged as the last man standing, outdueling the reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers and Pro Bowl fixture Matt Ryan in back-to-back starts during the postseason.
"He's acquitted himself really in every test he's been given," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said when talking about his QB. "A lot of people have talked about Colin. See how he does in this situation. See how the next game will prove something. We'll see how he does in the playoffs now. And see how he does in a road playoff. But, at every phase, he's acquitted himself very well."
Kaepernick did it primarily with his legs against the Packers, amassing 181 rushing yards -- an NFL record for a quarterback -- and two touchdowns in the 49ers' 45-31 win. The University of Nevada product also completed 17-of-31 passes for 263 yards with a pair of scores to Michael Crabtree. In total, Kaepernick piled up 444 yards of offense in San Francisco's amazing 579-yard effort against Green Bay.
"He's that new-style quarterback in the NFL that can run the read-option, that can pull the ball down, run it and take it the distance from anywhere on the football field. Extremely strong-armed, accurate," said 49ers Pro Bowl safety Donte Whitner.
Atlanta tried to learn from the Packers' flawed defensive schemes in the NFC Championship Game, making sure its ends got up the field against Kaepernick in the read-option. The Milwaukee native, however, showed patience and handed the ball off inside to Frank Gore and the speedy LaMichael James when warranted while using his arm to stun the Falcons.
Despite falling behind 17-0, Kaepernick kept his cool, played a clean game and took what Atlanta gave him. Gore eventually ran for a pair of touchdowns in the second half and the 49ers rallied past the Falcons, 28-24, securing their first Super Bowl appearance since 1994.
Kaepernick was limited to 21 rushing yards but finished 16-of-21 passing for 233 yards and a touchdown, finding tight end Vernon Davis five times for 106 yards and a TD.
"We're going to have to tackle him," Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said. "We're going to have to keep him inside and in front of our defense. We're not going to be able to run past him. He's fully capable of putting 200 yards on you in a second, just as capable as Frank Gore is, or any of their running backs. So, he's not just an integral part of their passing game; he's a huge part of their run game. Assignment football is going to be really important for us."
It's on Dixon to get the Ravens' outside linebackers, whether it be Suggs, rookie Courtney Upshaw or the emerging Paul Kruger, to play disciplined football. Staying at home and securing the edge, even at the expense of a pass rush, will be paramount for Baltimore.
Suggs was unable to play against the Redskins and Griffin because he was concerned his injured biceps wouldn't enable him to contain on the outside.
"He's planning on playing in this game," Harbaugh laughed. "So, it should be good for us. He'll be part of it. We did a pretty good job in that game once we got our feet on the ground against RGIII. They took the first drives down, but once we had a feel for the offense, I thought we did OK. It's a similar offense, obviously, style-wise."
And that brings Dixon to the forefront.
"Dennis will be a big part of that for us," Harbaugh said. "He understands the scheme and the reads and things like that. He's very valuable for us."