NEW ORLEANS – Dennis Dixon is on the Baltimore Ravens’ practice squad.
Though if the Ravens beat the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII, Dixon will have earned his championship ring.
Dixon has been the Ravens’ secret weapon, imitating the 49ers’ hard-to-replicate quarterback, Colin Kaepernick.
Kaepernick is difficult to prepare for. He has a big arm and is a threat to run in the 49ers’ read-option offense. Dixon is familiar with the read option from his days at the University of Oregon.
“That guy has been doing a major job,” Ravens cornerback and Turner-Carroll alum Corey Graham said of Dixon. “You’d think he might want to go somewhere that runs that offense so he can have an even bigger role in this NFL.
“But he’s done an outstanding job. He’s run this offense at Oregon. He knows it, and he’s done an amazing job of preparing us for this stage.”
In two playoff games, Kaepernick has thrown for 496 yards and three touchdowns with one interception and has run 18 times for 202 yards (only 7 yards behind Frank Gore for the team lead) and two touchdowns.
“We’ve got to stop the run,” Graham said. “We can’t allow [Kaepernick] to get out there and make plays with his legs.
“We’ve had an opportunity to not just see it, but go against it for the whole week. We had an opportunity to make those mistakes against this offense, and that’s important in football. Sometimes you need to be out there and make those mistakes in practice so you don’t in the game.”
The influx of running quarterbacks could help keep Dixon employed. The 2008 fifth-round draft choice has played only four NFL games, but he’s proving valuable.
Dixon also helped the Ravens prepare for Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III in Week 14. The Ravens lost, 31-28, in overtime. Griffin had a relatively modest day: 58 percent completions for 242 yards and one touchdown and seven carries for 34 yards and a fumble.
San Francisco has a great weapon in punter Andy Lee.
He set the NFL single-season record for net punting average in 2011 by posting a 44.0-yard mark. He also has topped the 40-yard net average mark four of the last six seasons.
No NFL punter ever had broken the 40-yard net barrier until 2007. That year, Oakland Raiders punter Shane Lechler (41.1) and Lee (41.0) both did it. The next year four punters did it. In 2009 six did it. In 2010 it was three, in 2011 nine and this season 15 punters did it.
That’s 39 times the 40-yard mark has been broken in the last six seasons after never having been cracked in NFL history.
“I think it’s once something happens, then it goes crazy,” Lee said. “There’s been more speed on the coverage teams. So the returners are not able to run around guys as much maybe.
“The balls are really good. They’re getting a little better than when I first came in the league. They were getting real slippery and nasty. They’re a little better, which is good for us because you can catch 'em, they’re not slipping out of your hands. You get a good grip.”
Perhaps the biggest factor: Punters are getting better at directional kicking, pinning return men near the sideline when the ball is caught. It makes coverage so much easier.
“I think punters are better,” said Niners special teams coach Brad Seely. “I think we’re just in a golden age of guys who can really kick the ball a long ways, and they’re doing a very good job of placing it on the field where it’s easier for the coverage team to squeeze the return man.
“More directional punting has helped. I think the punters are kicking it farther, so you’ve got to do directional punting or you’re going to be out there in space with a lot of field.”