James Develin is the most important back in Super Bowl LIII

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With a fourth Super Bowl appearance in the past five seasons, this New England Patriots dynasty rages on with unprecedented efficiency.

But not without some surprises.

The 2018 Pats have relied on an age-old formula for playoff success: combine a dominant run game with a stout defensive effort to control the clock (and the game). But leave it to the genius of Bill Belichick and his staff, who specialize in weekly preparation and game-planning, to employ an old-school, power-football approach during a time when most of the league strives for high-flying, video-game offense.

The Patriots started to really commit to the ground game after dropping to 9-5 following back-to-back losses. Since then, New England has amassed 183.8 rush yards per game over the last four contests, including its two postseason wins.

With 41-year-old Tom Brady under center, this team has leaned on its imposing offensive line and multi-faceted backfield, finding a lot of success running the football. First-round pick Sony Michel has been a monster in the Patriots' two postseason wins, running for 242 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns (a rookie record for a single postseason). Consequently, New England has averaged a whopping 165.5 rush yards per game in January.

While Michel is the breakout star of this surging ground attack, the Patriots have really leaned on their fullback -- a vanishing position in today's game -- to ignite the unit. The league's second-most-used player at the position in terms of offensive snaps this season, James Develin has been absolutely instrumental in the run game, despite remaining an unsung hero of sorts.

Honestly, given everything Develin is doing for the Patriots' offense right now, this 30-year-old Brown University product is suddenly the most important back -- on either team -- in Super Bowl LIII. Too hot a take for your liking? Well, allow me to show my work ...

With the exception of the San Francisco 49ers -- who heavily utilized their fullback, Kyle Juszczyk -- the Patriots have incorporated two-back personnel groupings more than any other NFL team over the course of this season, per Next Gen Stats. The Pats lead the league in touchdowns (22) out of two-back sets, with Michel scoring three of his five postseason rushing TDs in these personnel groupings.

Clearly, New England loves to flank its rookie back with its 6-foot-3, 255-pound people mover and pound the rock. On the season as a whole, New England has run the ball on 84.2 percent of offensive snaps when Michel and Develin are on the field together, per Next Gen Stats. Why rely on this straightforward, throwback brand of football? Well, per NGS, the Patriots have been more efficient in yards per rush and success rate (defined as the percentage of plays where an offense gains 40 percent of needed yards on first down, 50 percent on second down and 100 percent on third/fourth down) with Develin aligned in the backfield this season than on plays without him. So it makes perfect sense why OC Josh McDaniels has given Develin a bigger role this postseason, playing in roughly 10 offensive snaps more per game than he did during the regular season.

Wait, but by this point, don't opposing defenses know the Pats are looking to run every time Develin enters the game? Yes. New England's able to show its hand with two backs aligned in the backfield because of Develin's machine-like efficiency in opening up holes. For New England to have success running the ball when the defense knows it is coming is a huge credit to Develin, who has added a major physical element to this offense, and the O-line. On all four of the Patriots' rushing touchdowns in the AFC title game, Develin completely removed defenders from the gap. Check out Rex Burkhead's game-winning touchdown run in overtime, where Develin makes Chiefs LB Reggie Ragland a non-factor:

Michel is putting up huge numbers this postseason because of Develin's blocking and ability to open holes, giving the rookie back a clearer view of the lane. That's illustrated by the fact that Michel has gained more yards per rush on runs between the tackles with Develin in the backfield -- and almost all of these yards have come before contact. Check out Michel's touchdown on the opening drive last Sunday, when Develin plowed a path to the goal line:

New England's use of Develin keeps opposing defenses on their toes. Having a fullback in the backfield requires defenders to see different gaps and blocking schemes than they're used to in 2019, making it much more difficult for today's linebackers and safeties to get to the runner.

The Pats bulldozed through the Chargers and Chiefs on the way to Super Bowl LIII, but they might have a tougher time against their next foe. New England's run game will be crucial in this matchup with the Rams. With Develin's blocking ability and the run game's efficiency, the Patriots should be able to slow down Jared Goff and the Rams' explosive offense, which ranked second in scoring and yards during the regular season. This is exactly how the Pats were able to limit Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs for most of the AFC title bout, as they had the ball for 23(!) more minutes than K.C.'s potent offense.

Now, the Rams ranked 23rd in rush defense during the regular season, so this would seem to significantly play in the Patriots' favor. But in the postseason, this L.A. front suddenly looks much more stout against the run. After giving up just 50 yards on 22 carries to the Cowboys in the Divisional Round -- holding Ezekiel Elliott, the league's leading rusher, to 2.4 yards per carry -- Los Angeles had another outstanding performance against New Orleans in the NFC title game. The Rams gave up just 48 yards on 21 carries to a Saints offense that features arguably the best running back duo in the league (Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram).

The Rams had success against New Orleans' potent rushing attack for two reasons, with the first being that the Saints weren't patient enough with their run game. Instead, their game plan was to attack Los Angeles through their tight ends. Consequently, Kamara and Ingram were kept out of the end zone, which didn't happen often in 2018. The second reason for the Rams' vast turnaround against the run, at least from my perspective, is better technique. In being more fundamentally sound at this point in the season, the defensive line has made strides when taking on double-teams, which allows linebackers to run up and fill the gaps.

I also think the Saints would have been better served giving fullback Zach Line more opportunities to blow open holes. Kamara and Ingram wax poetic about their lead blocker's road-grading ability, but he only logged 13 snaps in the NFC title bout. I can't see the Pats limiting Develin's contributions like that. In fact, I believe Develin's performance will prove to be a huge determining factor on Super Bowl Sunday.

If the Pats continue to lean on their physically imposing fullback, they might just run to another Lombardi Trophy.

Follow Maurice Jones-Drew on Twitter @MJD.

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