Much (or all) of the build up to Feb. 3rd's Super Bowl will concern red-hot quarterbacks, All-Pro linebackers, and high-profile skill position players. But what about the other guys—the ones we'll never see on the cover of Sports Illustrated—who will make a major impact on the outcome?
Football is an absurdly complex, compartmentalized game. It's much more than one guy throwing a ball to another guy—it's an assembly line of specialized parts. If one part fails, the whole system breaks down; and if the whole system breaks down, it's very hard to win.
Let's look at three guys who are capable of making a big impact in New Orleans, even if you won't hear much about them in the coming weeks.
DB Bernard Pollard
Alright, so maybe "under the radar" isn't the right term—New England certainly knows all about him. But under appreciated? You bet.
gotten earned his reputation as a borderline flagrantly dirty player, but don't let disrepute blind you from how much he's improved. Under the tutelage of aging partner-in-crime Ed Reed, Pollard has actually blossomed into a very good all-around safety.
[Pollard] was in the top 10 in his position in plays, and top 20 in successes and defeats, the three statistics we use to analyze defenders at Football Outsiders (more info here). Don't focus on the half-dozen or so plays in his career that have sent Patriots to the sidelines; focus on the half-dozen plays he makes each week that help Baltimore win games.
Pollard's expertise in stopping the run will be vital against Colin Kaepernick, Frank Gore and the rest of San Francisco's read option attack, which could be problematic: According to Pro Football Focus, Pollard's worst game of the season came against Robert Griffin III and the Redskins, who deploy a similar offense. Of his 16 games played in 2012-13, that was the only one where Pollard graded out negative defending the run.
But with a game's worth of tape on how to not defend the read option, Pollard (and the rest of Baltimore's defense) should improve in the Super Bowl. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed will chain him to a desk in the film room like Princess Leia if that's what it takes; he's learning what he did wrong against Washington.
He could be the key to shutting down San Francisco's offense.
RB LaMichael James
The Niners always have an advantage in the running game, but that edge normally exists because of power. With Frank Gore running like a mac truck behind a mauling offensive line, San Francisco dominates smaller, speedier defenses with ease.
Baltimore is the opposite of that.
The Ravens are the rare team that can (and will) match San Francisco physically, and even behind that mighty offensive line, Gore will have less wiggle room than he's used to. Early failure up the middle might dissuade coach Jim Harbaugh from using Gore and encourage him to use his new favorite toy—LaMichael James.
The diminutive speedster from Oregon didn't touch the ball until December, but has since become an oft-featured weapon. He pushes the edge in a way Frank Gore no longer can, making him an ideal complement for Kaepernick in the option.
Against the creaky Ravens defense, that speed will be on full display. And the Niners are gonna need it.
C Matt Birk
Football is a complicated game. For a team to improve as drastically as Baltimore has in the past month, it takes more than "Joe Flacco must be playing better" or "Ray Lewis's return has lifted their spirits." Those things don't hurt, obviously, but for a team to go from chump to champ, there needs to be improvement across the board.
Matt Birk has been solid and steady all season, but he's kicked things into overdrive for the playoffs. Per Pro Football Focus, Birk played his two best games of the season against the Colts and Patriots, excelling especially against the run.
On Super Bowl Sunday, however, he'll be going up against San Francisco nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga—another guy who, according to Pro Football Focus, is coming off his best game of the season.
It's fair to say, with reasonable certainty, that Baltimore can't beat the Niners without getting production from its running game. That's easier said than done against San Francisco's defense (which Football Outsiders ranked second-best in the league), but hey, no one said winning the Super Bowl would be easy.
Birk is in the 14th season of a Hall of Fame career, making his first and (most likely) only appearance in the Super Bowl. Expect him to play with a fervor we haven't seen since his days in Minnesota.