Although the hype around Super Bowl LI is centered on Tom Brady and Matt Ryan, both teams have a wealth of talented players on offense. The Falcons not only have a wide receiver in Julio Jones who had a 300-yard game this season, they also have two talented running backs and a deep group of additional receivers. The Patriots have three gifted running backs and are so deep at receiver that Michael Floyd wasn’t even active for the AFC Championship game. With all this talent on the field, who will be the biggest impact player in Super Bowl LI?
The Biggest Impact Players in Super Bowl LI
The Falcons Offense
The Falcons averaged 33.8 points per game this season, leading the NFL in this category. Although Julio Jones is one of the best wide receivers in the league, the Falcons’ offensive production is not dependent on him. This year, the Falcons added Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel at the wide receiver position, and when Jones has been stifled they have stepped up.
At running back, Tevin Coleman has taken on a larger role in his sophomore season, creating a dangerous one-two punch with Devonta Freeman. Both are big play threats running the ball and catching passes out of the backfield. As if that was not enough fire power for Ryan, fullback Patrick DiMarco and tight ends Austin Hooper and Levine Toilolo have stepped up and made plays in clutch situations as well.
Passing the Ball
It’s a good thing that the Falcons have so many options because the Patriots have demonstrated the ability to manage a receiver of Jones’ caliber. Drawing the eyes of both Malcolm Butler and Devin McCourty the majority of the time, Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown had seven receptions for seventy-seven yards and no touchdowns in Pittsburgh’s playoff match-up with the Patriots. The star receiver was not completely shut down, but was not the impact player that the Steelers have come to rely on.
Although Jones will be a factor in this game, the Falcons cannot expect to beat the Patriots by merely throwing the ball in his direction. The Falcons have had a lot of explosive plays where they picked up large chunks of yardage this season. These plays come not only from throwing deep passes, but from running after the catch on shorter receptions as well as the ground game. These plays are difficult to come by against the Patriots whose defense is very skilled at keeping the ball in front of them and making good tackles.
Running the Show
The success of the Falcons offense in this game could rest heavily on the shoulders of their running backs. The Patriots play largely with two high safeties. This type of defense can be susceptible to the run because there are less defenders close to the line of scrimmage. These backs have also been tremendous in the pass game and will likely be able to sneak into holes in the Patriots defense from time to time.
The Patriots Offense
In spite of where they sit in the statistical standings the Falcons defense has been playing very well lately. They primarily utilize a cover three or a man free coverage. Both of these coverages involve one high safety which puts another run defender in the box and will make life more difficult for LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis. Tom Brady and the Patriots are set up well to face these coverages. Wide receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola are quick and shifty making them well suited to sit in holes in the Falcons’ cover three, and to stick their cuts in order to get open in man coverage.
A Sleeper in the Backfield
Running back James White catching the ball out of the backfield will cause he Falcons defense problems as well. In fact, White could be a major piece of the puzzle for the Patriots. Any player lining up in the backfield is a potential match-up problem, simply because their alignment makes them difficult to cover.
The Deep Threat
The most threatening way to attack these coverages is running a receiver directly up the seam between the corner and safety. This is something that the Patriots love to do with Rob Gronkowski, but unfortunately for New England that won’t work this time around. Martellus Bennett could have an impact here, but he has been playing through an injury and does not seem to be the same player. The most likely players to make an impact running deep in the seams are Malcolm Mitchell and Chris Hogan. These two have proven to be impact players running deep this season.
There is certainly no shortage of stars in this year’s Super Bowl. The Brady/Ryan showdown is about much more than these two men. Both face defenses that have improved steadily throughout the season and have been playing incredible football the last few weeks. How will each defense respond to their greatest challenge on football’s biggest stage?