Predicting Unsung Heroes for Super Bowl LI

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It always seems to be a common occurrence in the Super Bowl.  There is always a player that transforms from a relative unknown to a key contributor in the biggest game of the year.  We have seen it in past Super Bowls.  How many of you knew about Tracy Porter before his game-sealing pick six of Peyton Manning in Super Bowl XLIV?  Anyone who wasn’t a Packer fan had to look up the name Jarrett Bush after his big interception of Ben Roethlisberger in the second quarter of Super Bowl XLV.  Just last year, Carolina defensive lineman Kony Ealy showed up in a big way on defense, recording three sacks, an interception, and a forced fumble.  That performance etched his name in the history books as the only defender with multiple sacks and an INT in a Super Bowl.  No one will ever forget the helmet catch by David Tyree that propelled the Giants to one of the biggest upsets in Super Bowl history.  And two years ago, in Super Bowl XLIX, there were two surprising standouts.  One was Seattle WR Chris Matthews, who dominated the Patriots secondary late in the second quarter, including an 11 yard touchdown catch to tie the game up with two seconds left in the half.  The other?  Malcolm Butler, who saved the Patriots title hopes with an interception of Russell Wilson at the one yard line with under 30 seconds to go in the game.

If that is any indication to you, there will be a standout on Sunday that not many people have heard of.  Let’s take a look at five players who could have a big game in the biggest game of their career.

Austin Hooper

Hooper is a name that would be a little more familiar than the rest, especially if you have watched a good amount of games this year.  Austin Hooper is a rookie tight end out of Stanford.  He hasn’t had a major impact this year, mostly due to the amount of weapons that Atlanta currently possesses.  Julio Jones, Taylor Gabriel, and Mohamed Sanu have drawn the largest portion of targets from Matt Ryan this season.  Plus, both of Atlanta’s running backs are used in the passing game.  So how could Hooper possibly stand out?  Well, it’s no secret the Pats are going to need to keep track of Julio Jones at all times.  The Pats could also find themselves in sub packages a lot more because of the speed on Atlanta’s offense.  Those sub packages will directly affect the middle of the field, a place where tight ends do most of their work.  It’s possible that Hooper will get size mismatches when New England moves to sub packages, which could result in a big day for Hooper in the middle of the field.

Eric Rowe

There always seems to be a defensive star that emerges for New England in big games (see Malcolm Butler, Super Bowl 49).  Eric Rowe is in the conversation for one reason and one reason only: he has the versatility as a defensive back to line up in coverage all over the field.  He can match up with tight ends and also cover big, physical receivers.  It is very possible that Rowe will draw the assignment of covering Julio Jones.  He won’t be alone on an island, because a guy like Jones often draws safety help, but Rowe could be jamming him at the line and staying underneath knowing he has help over the top.  If New England stays disciplined defensively (which they usually do), then an errant throw or bad decision by Matt Ryan could end up with the ball in Rowe’s hands, possibly in a key moment.

Ricardo Allen

When you think of Atlanta’s secondary, you usually think of two names.  One is Desmond Trufant, who was lost for the year in November.  The second is rookie standout Keanu Neal.  So why would I pick Ricardo Allen?  Keanu Neal is the strong safety on defense, and his specialty is often dropping down near the line of scrimmage for run support and to roam the middle of the field.  That often leaves Ricardo Allen playing centerfield, a staple in head coach Dan Quinn’s cover 3 matchup scheme.  So, if Brady wants to take a shot downfield, Allen has the speed and range to get to the football.  He had a pick on a deep ball thrown by Aaron Rodgers near the end of the first half in the NFC Championship game, and I’m sure he’s itching to make a play on another future Hall of Famer.

James White

New England boasts a trio of running backs who can produce, but the best part about New England’s running scheme is that you never know who’s going to get the most touches.  Jonas Gray had a 200 yard, 4 TD game against the Colts back in 2014 and was cut the same season.  Translation?  Atlanta can’t be positive about who will get the most touches.  The odds point to LeGarrette Blount, who will test the interior run defense of Atlanta.  I imagine it being quite successful, but we know Blount won’t be out there on passing downs.  That duty will fall on James White and Dion Lewis, who are serious receiving threats out of the backfield.  We have seen how dangerous these two can be, especially when a linebacker gets matched up on them.  Lewis and White have both mastered the wheel route, which gives an offense another dimension in the passing game.  But, I’m going to lean towards James White being the unknown who could shine.  Why, you ask?  I stated the fact up above.  New England always surprises us when it comes to running backs.  Most people believe that Dion Lewis will have the big game coming out of the backfield on passing downs because that’s what we’ve seen the past two years from him.  But, New England always does unexpected things.  So, even though it will be a test for White (Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell are fast linebackers who can cover), I think the Pats could go outside the box and get him involved early and often.

Malcolm Mitchell

The final pick was a tough one.  It’s easy to think that Julian Edelman will have a big game, because he is quite tough to cover in space.  Chris Hogan has emerged as a deep threat in the passing game, and has become well known around the league.  He can’t apply here anymore.  So, we shift to Malcolm Mitchell.  Mitchell has a lean frame for his height, so it was clear as a rookie he wouldn’t go high in the draft.  But, the Pats saw his speed in the 40 yard dash and his burst in the open field, so they took a chance.  So far, Mitchell can produce in spots when needed.  As far as him having a big game?  Well, we know New England likes the short, quick passing game.  Mitchell has the quickness to get open in space, and his short area burst makes him deadly when the ball is in his hands.  But, what if New England goes off script and throws it deep?  It’s all Hogan now, right?  Wrong.  We just talked about Mitchell’s deadly speed.  He can beat Atlanta’s corners deep and will get his targets from the separation he creates.

Tune in on Sunday to see if one of these guys emerges and has himself a game.  Who do you think could emerge?  Comment here, or find me on Twitter @JSchyvinck13 to discuss!

Jake Schyvinck covers the NFL and the NFL Draft on The Sports Guys.  Find him on Twitter @JSchyvinck13 to discuss!

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