Super Bowl LI comes with plenty of star power, but both the Patriots and Falcons also have some under-the-radar players who can make a difference on Sunday.
These 10 names might not ring much of a bell now, or in some cases not as much as they used to, but making a big play or two in the Super Bowl is all it will take for their names to be remembered forever.
It might be easy to forget now that Chris Long was a No. 2 overall draft pick.
Yes, the Chris Long who plays for the Patriots now is the same Chris Long who the Rams drafted in 2008, one pick before the Falcons took Matt Ryan.
It would behoove Long to again get close to Ryan on Sunday.
The Patriots had 34 sacks this season, tied for 16th in the NFL. They’ll have to be more than just average in that department to slow down Ryan and the Falcons’ offense, which led the NFL with 540 points in the regular season.
A 6’4″, 275-pound defensive end, Long was tied for third on the team with four sacks. He’s had just eight sacks in the last three years. But according to Pro Football Focus, Long leads the Patriots with 57 quarterback pressures this season. He was the only Patriot with more than 40 pressures.
A Super Bowl ring might have seemed like a pipe dream for Long as he spent the first eight years of his career in St. Louis. But if he can disrupt Ryan, he could have a ring just like his father, Hall of Famer Howie Long.
If the Patriots employ their time-honored approach of taking away their opponent’s biggest weapon, then they’ll concentrate on stopping Julio Jones.
But challenging Mohamed Sanu to beat them could be a mistake.
In one sense, Sanu won’t catch the Patriots by surprise. He has attempted five passes in his career on gadget plays, but according to CBSSports.com, Bill Belichick is on high alert for a gadget play even though Sanu didn’t attempt a pass this season in his first year with the Falcons.
If double-teaming Jones creates opportunities for Sanu in the receiving game, the Patriots could get burned. Sanu has caught touchdown passes in each of the last three games. He opened the scoring with a touchdown in the Falcons’ 44-15 win over the Packers in the NFC championship game and he hammered the last nail in the Seahawks’ coffin with a touchdown that gave the Falcons a 36-13 lead in the divisional round.
All five of Sanu’s touchdowns have come in the red zone this season.
Falcons outside linebacker Vic Beasley led the NFL with 15.5 sacks during the regular season, but has been held without a sack in the postseason.
The Patriots want to keep it that way, and right tackle Marcus Cannon will be the key to keeping Beasley away from Tom Brady.
Beasley does most of his pass rushing from the right side, so he’ll be matching up with Cannon.
A fifth-round draft pick in 2011, Cannon started a total of 19 games in his first five seasons, playing every position on the line except right guard. This year, he started 15 games at right tackle in place of an injured Sebastian Vollmer, and according to Pro Football Focus hasn’t allowed a sack since Week 1.
Among the players Cannon has held without a sack is Von Miller in Week 15. Last year’s Super Bowl MVP was second in the league with 13.5 sacks this year.
Cannon has been a member of three Patriots teams that have reached the Super Bowl, but he’ll be making his first Super Bowl start.
Ra’Shede Hageman, who the Falcons drafted in the second round in 2014, finally seems to be turning the corner in his third season.
The defensive lineman had two sacks this year after one sack in each of his first two seasons. Those sacks came in Weeks 15 and 16, and then he sacked Aaron Rodgers in the NFC championship game.
Interior pressure can fluster Tom Brady. One of the rare bright spots for the Steelers in their 36-17 AFC championship game loss came when nose tackle Javon Hargrave sacked Brady. Hargrave was still about four yards away from him when he gave himself up.
If the 6’6″, 310-pound Hageman gets to Brady, it’s going to be through the middle. If Vic Beasley can’t generate pressure, it might have to come from Hageman.
Danny Amendola wasn’t even guaranteed to dress in the AFC championship game, but he beat out Michael Floyd and caught two passes for 12 yards against the Steelers.
After Chris Hogan’s breakout performance against the Steelers, just about every other Patriots receiver except maybe for Julian Edelman can fly under the radar.
Amendola had just 23 catches during the regular season and he’s been nursing an ankle injury. But he caught a career-high four touchdowns and 12 of his receptions were third-down conversions according to Pro Football Reference.
Of all the healthy Patriots who caught more passes than him this season, only Edelman has caught a pass in a Super Bowl. Amendola caught five passes for 48 yards and a touchdown in the Patriots’ Super Bowl XLIX win over the Seahawks.
Super Bowl LI will be a homecoming for Amendola, who grew up in the Houston area. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Patriots lean on Amendola a little more because of his Super Bowl experience.
Deion Jones is one of four rookies on the Falcons defense who will be starting in the Super Bowl.
Drafted in the second round, Jones led the Falcons with three interceptions this year. He returned two of them for touchdowns. One of those pick-sixes came against Jared Goff, but the other came against Drew Brees and he’s also intercepted Philip Rivers and Russell Wilson in the divisional round of the playoffs.
But can the outside linebacker solve Tom Brady?
Jones also was second on the team with 11 passes defended. He told the New York Post that he was a little stunned Monday night when he stepped out on the stage and saw the number of media members. For the Falcons to win the turnover battle, Jones will have to get over that stage fright.
LeGarrette Blount led the Patriots with 1,161 rushing yards this season, but he’s averaged just 2.8 yards per carry since Week 15, including the postseason.
The Patriots’ backfield has been a committee during that time, but handing the ball to Blount might be the best way to keep the ball out of Matt Ryan’s hands.
The Falcons allowed 104.5 rushing yards per game this season, 17th in the NFL. They were tied for 25th with 4.5 yards allowed per carry. If Blount can move the chains, the Patriots can control the clock and prevent the dangerous Falcons’ offense from getting into a rhythm.
Pro Bowl cornerback Desmond Trufant was lost for the season in Week 9 with a torn pectoral muscle, and Robert Alford has been the glue that’s kept the Falcons secondary from falling to pieces.
Alford is fifth in the NFL with 19 passes defended, according to Sporting Charts, and broke up three passes in the NFC championship game. As his starts have gone up in each of his four years in the league, his passes defended also have increased.
A second-round draft pick in 2013, Alford might be best known for his flop after Aaron Rodgers brushed up against him in the NFC championship game. During a Week 5 win at Denver, Alford was penalized for attempting to kick Emmanuel Sanders after tackling him.
An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty would be costly. But if Alford can be a little dirty without getting caught, well, it’s not like he’s been filming the Patriots’ practices.
Perhaps Logan Ryan can be the Patriots’ breakout star cornerback in this Super Bowl, even if he is more established now than Malcolm Butler was in 2014.
Not only could Ryan be involved with covering Julio Jones, but he’s been the Patriots’ leading tackler in the regular season and postseason and according to Pro Football Focus he has the third-best run-stop percentage in the league among cornerbacks.
The latter trait might be at least as important as covering Jones, because according to MassLive.com, the Falcons are 1-3 this season when they rush for less than 80 yards while the Patriots are 26-0 since 2012 when holding their opponents to less than 80 yards on the ground.
The Falcons were fifth in the league with 120.5 rushing yards per game and tied for fourth with 4.6 yards per carry, so Ryan and the Patriots have their work cut out for them.
Rookie tight end Austin Hooper missed the last two games of the regular season with an MCL sprain. He returned for the playoffs and caught one pass in the Falcons’ divisional playoff win over the Seahawks. That one catch, for 10 yards, gave the Falcons a first down on their first possession, which ended with a touchdown that tied the game at 7-7.
Hooper caught two passes for 23 yards in the NFC championship game. They were Matt Ryan’s first completion of the game and a third-down conversion.
If Hooper’s production continues to increase and Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu are on lockdown, Hooper could be a secret weapon for the Falcons.