Whether it was David Tyree for the Giants when they vanquished the 18-0 New England Patriots or Dexter Jackson in the Buccaneers' rout of the Oakland Raiders in the 2002 season, Super Bowl history is filled with the exploits of under-the-radar players who showed up in the biggest moments. Players of this ilk rarely win the MVP trophy designated for the high-flying quarterbacks, but their contributions often go down in the lore of each individual game.
The Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots are guided by two MVP candidate quarterbacks, but they also bring no shortage of options to the table for a suspiring hero candidate in Super Bowl LI. The Patriots are famous for altering their game plan week to week on defense and have many contributors on offense. The Falcons 540-point offense can beat an opposing team in any way under the sun and their defense is littered with young up and comers.
The NFL's Next Gen Stats tracking data brings us insight on the games that we could never have accessed before. Here we will use some of the data gathered on these two teams throughout the course of the 2016 season to try and predict who the surprising hero may be come confetti time at Super Bowl LI.
Keanu Neal, Safety, Atlanta Falcons
Neal finished with 72 solo tackles in 14 games and chipped in with another 34 assisted. The big-hitter also was an enforcer, causing five forced fumbles in the regular season, trailing only Bruce Irvin and his own teammate Vic Beasley. Neal clearly brought something to the Falcons defense they did not have before: a tone-setter.
While the impressive rookie makes the highlight-reel plays when he arrives to ball-carriers with authority, it's how he gets there that makes him a true difference-maker to the Falcons defense.
Neal ranks fourth among all safeties this year with a 4.83-second time to tackle. The NFL average is 5.26 seconds. He also ranks third among all safeties with an average of 17 yards of raw distance traveled to tackle (20.3 league average). Not so coincidentally, Neal narrowly trails Kam Chancellor's second-ranked 16.8 figure, as Neal's the player Dan Quinn wanted to mold after his former Seahawks safety. The Next Gen Stats help illuminate just how well he's executing that assignment. Keanu Neal takes better angles and closes quicker on ball-carriers as well as any safety in the league.
The Patriots style of offense will surely bring Keanu Neal into the spotlight in Super Bowl LI. The Patriots scoring attack relentlessly picks on teams in the short to intermediate zones, with Tom Brady operating as the master of finding the best individual matchup available. Brady's 8.54 air yards per attempt ranked 23rd among quarterbacks with 200-plus attempts and his 134.9 passer rating on intermediate throws (10-19 extended air yards) far and away led the NFL.
With much of the passing game likely to be funneled in front of Keanu Neal, he should be able to use his downhill and pursuit ability with frequency. That will put him in position for several highlight-reel and game-changing plays on Sunday.
Dion Lewis and James White, running backs, New England Patriots
Back in the 2014 season during the most recent Super Bowl appearance, the Patriots squared off with the Seattle Seahawks and their Dan Quinn coached defense. In that contest, then pass-catching specialist Shane Vereen led the team with 11 catches on 12 targets. Given the Falcons performance against running backs in the passing game this year, it makes sense for them to revive this strategy once again.
Falcons defense vs. running backs
Targets:108 (T-third highest)
Catches: 85 (T-second highest)
Yards: 659 (fourth highest)
Touchdowns: six (first highest)
Passer rating:110.6 (third highest)
Atlanta has yet to show they have an answer for running backs peeling out to assist in the passing game, and opposing teams have exploited them all season. There's no reason to assume New England won't try to be the next in line.
Dion Lewis was a star and featured part of the Patriots offense in the early going of 2015 before an ACL injury ended his season. The rehab process was long and grueling for Lewis and he did not reappear until Week 11 this year. During his absence, James White proved to be an adequate, though less exciting, replacement. White registered the third-most targets (67) when lined up in the backfield and scored five touchdowns on those -- more than any other back in the NFL.
As Lewis began to return to form, the duo has shared pass-catching duties in the postseason. Lewis has seven targets to White's five and averages a full yard more per reception. Both have scored a receiving touchdown when lined up in the backfield. White has lined up outside of the backfield on 10 plays in the postseason but has not seen a target yet. Lewis has two targets to his name when lined up out wide over the last two games.
We all know that Bill Belichick identifies weaknesses in his opponents and adjusts game plans to attack them. He clearly marked the Seahawks' ability to stop receiving running backs as one in Super Bowl XLIX. The Quinn-led 2016 Falcons appear to have the same issues. The aforementioned Keanu Neal is not the only rookie stationed in the middle of the Falcons defense.
Second-rounder Deion Jones and fourth-rounder De'Vondre Campbell both inhabit the starting lineup at linebacker. Now, Jones and Campbell are athletes at the position who ran 4.59 and 4.58 40-yard dashes at the NFL Scouting Combine, respectively. Their strengths are as coverage players and their improvement over the course of the season has been a big reason Atlanta's defense is largely trending up. Yet, these are still rookies and will likely draw targets from Belichick in the Patriots' game plan. If they can't hold up to that attention, either of White or Lewis could end up as the difference-maker for New England's offense.
Malcolm Mitchell, wide receiver, New England Patriots
Falcons defense passer rating allowed
Behind the line:95.6 passer rating (22nd best)
0-9 air yards:99.4 passer rating (25th best)
10-19 air yards: 86.1 allowed (15th best)
20-plus air yards: 77.2 passer rating (16th best)
Hogan and the deep passing game could certainly come into focus, as Atlanta carries just an average pass defense, but they are far weaker toward the line of scrimmage. A lot of the evidence suggests the Patriots will hone in on the short passing game. In Super Bowl XLIX against the Dan Quinn-led Seahawks, that's exactly what Tom Brady focused on, throwing 50 passes for just 6.6 yards per attempt.
While we previously looked at some of the potential weaknesses in Atlanta's middle of the field coverage, they've also allowed a passer rating within or below the league average in every outside zone of the field.
The passer rating allowed grid also seems to indicate they've been more generous to pass-catchers on the left side of the field. The Falcons lost their top corner, Desmond Trufant, for the season to an injury in Week 9 against Tamp Bay. That Bucs game was also second-year corner Jalen Collins first action of the 2016 season, as he started the year on suspension for PEDs and was not made active until Week 9. He's been a fixture in the lineup ever since, averaging over 60 plays per game from Weeks 10 to 17.
During the latter half of the season, the Falcons struggled against wide receivers lined up out wide on the left side of the field. Since Week 9, the Falcons defense allowed 300 yards and two touchdowns to left wide receivers with a passer rating of 94.0. That mark was the fifth-highest during that span, compared to the 75.4 NFL average.
If Collins sticks at right corner against the Patriots, we should expect him to match up with Patriots receiver Malcolm Mitchell. The rookie wideout returned from a multi-week injury absence to go out for 63 percent of the Patriots offensive plays in their blowout win over the Steelers. Mitchell primarily lined up at left wide receiver (64 percent) and saw all four of his targets from that spot. That's a trend spilling over from the regular season, where Mitchell saw 75 percent of his total targets when lined up wide left.
Mitchell is a talented young player likely to square off with a similarly inexperienced player in Collins. If Bill Belichick identifies him as the Falcons weak point, the prolific coach could go after him with Mitchell, who showed an ability to get open routinely in 2016 by averaging 2.7 yards of separation on his targets out wide.
Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel, wide receivers, Atlanta Falcons
Fantasy football players certainly know of the strong 2016 exploits of the Falcons complementary receivers. However, the public-at-large attention will always surround Julio Jones. He will likely draw the same sort of notice from Bill Belichick, who famously designs game plans to take away the opposing offense's top threat.
Malcolm Butler is the Patriots No. 1 cornerback, but he has not been deployed as a shadow corner on a regular basis. The Next Gen Stats tracking indicates the only player he truly shadowed this season was Antonio Brown, both in Week 7 and in the Conference Championship game. Butler covered other top wide outs like A.J. Green, DeAndre Hopkins (two games) and Demaryius Thomas on just eight total plays this year. There's plenty of ambiguity in projecting Butler's assignment in this game, and he could just not shadow Jones.
With the Patriots trading off their coverage of Green -- safety Devin McCourty helped over the top -- they were able to limit him to just six catches for 88 yards on 10 targets in a blowout 35-17 win. The Falcons have had great success moving Jones around the field this year, with 49 percent of his targets coming at left wideout, 31 percent at right and another 20 percent from the slot. With his proclivity to travel across the formation, Belichick may just let all three of their top corners take their turns on him with McCourty being the x-factor at safety.
Mohamed Sanu turned in a solid game against the Packers with five catches for 52 yards and a touchdown in the NFC Championship game. He's been a useful weapon when called upon all season, with 62 percent of his targets coming from the slot. Sanu could draw coverage from Logan Ryan, who was was in the slot on 44 of his 47 passing plays in the AFC Championship game. He also covered Hopkins, a similarly-built receiver who is also great in contested situations like Sanu, on 32 plays in their Week 3 meeting. Ryan held him to just 58 yards on seven targets.
If the action on Sunday plays out that way, Taylor Gabriel could end up seeing plenty of cornerback Eric Rowe. An acquisition from the Eagles, Rowe did not draw major action for the Patriots until Week 6. So far in the postseason, Rowe has been targeted 14 times and allowed seven catches for 111 yards and a touchdown. Additionally, he was in coverage against Sammie Coates in the AFC Championship when the Steelers receiver dropped a deep pass. If Taylor Gabriel runs a majority of his routes against Eric Rowe, that could be a mismatch. Gabriel has topped 19 MPH in 12 games this season and is a player with tremendous speed.
The Patriots pass coverage is a difficult beast to predict. However, don't be surprised if Gabriel ends up emerging with a big-time performance if the cornerback alignment shakes out just right.