By Steve Silverman
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The television networks and the huge sports websites, magazines and newspapers will focus on the superstars because that is exactly what they do.
In the days leading up to Super Bowl LI, you will continue to hear more about Tom Brady, Matt Ryan, LeGarrette Blount and Julio Jones. These are the stars of the Patriots and Falcons, and they have performed as building blocks for victories for their teams.
However, when it comes to winning conference championships and Super Bowls, it is about the depth of talent and the way that talent is deployed.
It’s not enough to depend on superstar players. It’s often up to role players to step up when a world title is on the line.
The Patriots were on the positive side of this theory two years ago when a rookie cornerback named Malcolm Butler intercepted a Russell Wilson pass at the goal line as the Seahawks were about to score the game-winning touchdown.
Butler has used that play to springboard his career, and he not only now starts for defensive coordinator Matt Patricia’s unit, he has become one of the top cover men in the league.
The Patriots were on the other side of watching a role player become a game-changer in 2007, when a relatively unknown receiver named David Tyree made a miraculous catch off of his helmet to set up the game-winning TD that gave the Giants Super Bowl XLII and ruined New England’s undefeated season.
Unheralded players have often had an impact throughout the Super Bowl era, from Max McGee’s heroics in the first AFL-NFL Championship game in 1967, to Redskins running back Timmy Smith’s 204-yard effort in Super Bowl XXII.
Throw in linebacker Mike Jones of the St. Louis Rams, who made the game-saving tackle on Tennessee wideout Kevin Dyson in Super Bowl XXXIV and linebacker Rod Martin of the Oakland Raiders who had three interceptions in Super Bowl XV to lead his team and ruin the Philadelphia Eagles.
Both the Patriots and Falcons have several players who could join that list of unheralded heroes.
The Patriots’ No. 3 running back is James White, and he may be hiding in the weeds as these two teams prepare for the Super Bowl. White carried the ball 39 times for 166 yards in the regular season, but he also caught 60 passes for 551 yards and five touchdowns.
White runs sharp routes and has excellent hands. He was targeted 86 times and made the reception on 70 percent of those throws. He has only been targeted five times in the postseason, and while the Falcons won’t overlook him, they aren’t going to focus their game plan on stopping him.
Keep your eye on New England defensive end Jabaal Sheard.
If you are asking who that is, you’re not alone. Sheard is a depth pass rusher for the Patriots who had five sacks during the regular season.
The Pats are not known for their ability to pressure quarterbacks — Trey Flowers led them with just seven sacks this year — but they come up with big plays at key moments. Sheard can use his power to stun blockers, attack the pocket and get to the quarterback. The former Cleveland Brown could have an influence on Super Bowl LI.
So could linebacker Shea McClellin, a castoff from the Chicago Bears who has made an impact on the Patriots with his athleticism.
While he was ridiculed in Chicago, he has found a home on the Patriots because of his outstanding special teams play and his quickness on defense. If the Patriots need to block a kick, look for McClellin to get involved. He had 41 tackles this year, along with a sack and two fumble recoveries.
He is not a star, as the Bears hoped he would become, but he is a fine role player.
Taylor Gabriel is the Falcons’ No. 3 receiver, and like Sheard, he is a former Cleveland Brown. Gabriel has explosive speed, so there is no way that he will escape Patricia’s attention, but there are only so many ways that he can deploy his defense.
Jones and Devonta Freeman have to command most of Patricia’s focus, so that means Gabriel will get single coverage throughout most of the game. Gabriel has quick change of direction as well as long speed. He caught 49 passes for 579 yards and six touchdowns this season.
The Falcons are ranked 25th in yards allowed and 28th against the pass, which suggests Brady and the New England offense should have opportunities to move the ball and score against Atlanta. But the Falcons do have weapons on defense. Their best is Vic Beasley, who had 15½ sacks this year. However, the unheralded hero could be free safety Ricardo Allen, who has seven tackles, four passes batted away and two interceptions in his two postseason games. This follows a regular season in which he had 90 tackles.
During the regular season, Allen was more of a hammer, as he crept into the box and attacked the running game. He has become something of a playmaker and could be dangerous Sunday.
Finally, special teams are likely to have a major impact on Super Bowl Sunday, and while this is an area that the Patriots have traditionally had an edge, the Falcons may be the stronger team. Matt Bryant has long been one of the most consistent placekickers in the league, and he made 34 of 37 field goal attempts this season. There’s not much of a difference between him and New England’s Stephen Gostkowski.
However, Atlanta punter Matt Bosher has a huge leg, averaging 46.8 yards per punt. If he can have a big game and help the Falcons develop a field-position edge, this could work out in Atlanta’s favor and help them stay in the game for 60 minutes and possibly come up with the upset.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @Profootballboy