Under-the-Radar Players to Watch in Super Bowl XLVII
Super Bowl XLVII is loaded with superstars that even the most casual fans will recognize, but both teams field players you may not know about who will be vital to the success of their respective teams.
Like Rod Martin in Super Bowl XV, Carl Banks in Super Bowl XXI and Tracy Porter in Super Bowl XLIV, these players have a chance to forever be enshrined in Super Bowl lore as heroes nobody saw coming.
LaMichael James, RB, San Francisco 49ers
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Frank Gore is the main man for the 49ers, but don't fall asleep on LaMichael James.
James didn't even take a single snap until the month of December. He was stuck behind Gore and Kendall Hunter on the depth chart, and the 49ers didn't feel the need to rush him into action as a rookie.
But when Hunter went down with a torn Achilles tendon at the end of November, James rose to the challenge and took over for his teammate in style.
James is a speedy back who possesses surprising power. In his short time as Gore's backup, he's carried the ball 35 times for 180 yards (5.14 yards per carry) and one touchdown (including playoffs).
James' speed makes him a perfect player in the 49ers' Pistol, read-option offense, and you shouldn't be surprised if he ends up having a major impact in this game, given the lack of speed on the perimeter of the Ravens' 3-4 defense.
Bernard Pierce, RB, Baltimore Ravens
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Ray Rice is one of the NFL's best running backs, and the Ravens absolutely need him to play well in Super Bowl XLVII, but he's not the only back capable of having a huge impact on the outcome.
Bernard Pierce has been one of the unsung heroes to Baltimore's postseason run in 2013, and he's actually outgained Rice on the ground in two of the team's three games thus far.
Pierce gained 532 yards and one touchdown on 108 carries (4.9 yards per carry) during the regular season. He really stepped his game up to another level this January, rushing for 169 yards on 27 carries (6.3 yards per carry) in the postseason.
If Rice gets swallowed up by the 49ers' dominant run defense, don't be surprised if Pierce breaks off a couple of big gains with fresh legs to keep drives moving.
He's done it all year long.
Tarell Brown, CB, San Francisco 49ers
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No doubt the secondary of the San Francisco 49ers will be tested multiple times in Super Bowl XLVII.
The Atlanta Falcons completely annihilated the 49ers through the air in the first half of the NFC Championship Game, but Tarell Brown and his mates buckled down and shut it down in the second half.
Brown is an unheralded member of the 49ers defense. Carlos Rogers, Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson receive most of the national attention, but Brown has been playing at a high level all year long.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Brown was the No. 17-ranked cover corner in the NFL during the regular season. He didn't give up a single touchdown and picked off two passes.
Even more impressive is that he was PFF's No. 1-ranked cornerback in terms of tackling efficiency, missing just one tackle all year in 58 attempts.
He'll be a key cog for the 49ers as the team attempts to slow down Joe Flacco's aerial assault on Sunday.
Pernell McPhee, DE, Baltimore Ravens
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After a promising start to his young career in 2011 (six sacks), Pernell McPhee's sophomore season wasn't nearly as productive, as he struggled with a knee injury for part of the season.
But McPhee has come on strong of late, with four tackles, one sack and a forced fumble in the playoffs.
A strong performance from him against the 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII is absolutely necessary if Baltimore has any hope of slowing down San Francisco's rushing attack.
Getting pressure up the middle will be a key to slowing down Colin Kaepernick, both as a runner and a passer. McPhee will have his opportunities, since Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs will certainly demand double-teams at times.
If he can continue his strong play in the playoffs, the Ravens have a shot at slowing down the 49ers' explosive offense.
Ted Ginn, WR/ST, San Francisco 49ers
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Ted Ginn only caught two passes for the 49ers all year long, and only one for three yards so far this postseason. He isn't a reliable receiver, but boy, can he make plays with the ball in his hands—which is why he's such a dangerous punt returner.
Ginn has only returned two punts thus far in the playoffs, but his 20-yard return early in the fourth quarter against the Atlanta Falcons put the 49ers offense in Falcons territory and resulted in the game-winning drive.
LaMichael James has taken over as the team's kickoff returner, but Ginn still packs a punch as a punt returner. He's taken three punts and three kickoffs back for touchdowns in his career, and one big play from him could turn the tide in favor of the 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII.
Dennis Pitta, TE, Baltimore Ravens
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Dennis Pitta has gotten better every year since being drafted by the Ravens in 2010.
He logged 61 receptions for 669 yards and seven touchdowns during the regular season, and he's been productive in the playoffs as well, catching 10 passes for 137 yards and two touchdowns.
Pitta isn't as explosive an athlete as Vernon Davis, but he's no slouch. He has a knack for getting his body in excellent position to make tough catches, much like a basketball player who posts up in the paint.
Playing alongside Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin helps Pitta, too, since both receivers are good enough to demand help over the top.
Granted, the Ravens haven't faced a team with middle linebackers as athletic and speedy as Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, but Pitta will get his chances to make a big impact in the passing game on Sunday.
Delanie Walker, TE, San Francisco 49ers
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Delanie Walker is a bit of an enigma.
Some weeks, he looks like he's Vernon Davis' slightly smaller cousin, making spectacular catches while outrunning slower defenders, while other weeks he can't catch a cold.
Walker dropped nine passes during the regular season (per Pro Football Focus) and two more in the playoffs. He has struggled to catch Colin Kaepernick's fastballs, but when he does, he's one of the most dangerous weapons on the field for the 49ers.
Paul Kruger, OLB, Baltimore Ravens
How Paul Kruger is still an under-the-radar player is a mystery to me, but most fans that root for teams other than the Ravens don't know who he is.
Kruger was one of the most disruptive pass-rushers in the entire NFL this past season, and he's carried his success into the postseason.
According to Pro Football Focus, Kruger was the most productive 3-4 outside linebacker (over Aldon Smith) as a pass-rusher in 2012, logging 55 pressures on 448 snaps.
He has totaled 18 pressures in three games during the playoffs this year, and he's going to be one of the Ravens' most important players on the defensive side of the ball on Sunday.
Ray McDonald, DE, San Francisco 49ers
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Justin and Aldon Smith get all the praise, but Ray McDonald is just as crucial to the success of the 49ers defense against the run and the pass.
His sack numbers were down a bit this year compared to 2011, but McDonald still managed to pressure the quarterback 40 times in 2012—good enough to make him Pro Football Focus' No. 11-ranked 3-4 pass-rushing defensive end.
He's also a stout run defender, missing just four tackles all year long.
Going up against Joe Flacco, it will be imperative that McDonald get a good push up the middle, as Flacco is susceptible to errors when faced with pressure up the gut.
Look for McDonald to make a big impact on Sunday in this capacity.
Dannell Ellerbe, ILB, Baltimore Ravens
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Ray Lewis gets all the hype, but Dannell Ellerbe has been a warrior in the middle for the Ravens in this year's playoffs.
The biggest key for the Ravens on defense will be to shut down Frank Gore and the 49ers' rushing attack. Ellerbe has been stout in the middle against the run in the postseason, making 10 solo tackles and six assists, while missing just one tackle in three games this January (per Pro Football Focus).
He also came up with a huge interception against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, and he'll need to continue his stellar play in Super Bowl XLVII if the Ravens have any chance at slowing down the juggernaut 49ers offense.
Chris Culliver, CB, San Francisco 49ers
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Chris Culliver can't even crack the starting lineup for the 49ers, yet he's the team's best pure cover cornerback, and he has blazing speed, to boot.
According to Pro Football Focus, Culliver was the NFL's No. 5-ranked cover cornerback in 2012.
When the Ravens line up in a three-wide set, Culliver will step in as the 49ers' third cornerback playing the outside, while Carlos Rogers will move inside to cover the slot.
Culliver possesses exceptional ball skills, and he'll likely be matched up against Torrey Smith on a number of occasions. His success or failure to defend the deep ball will certainly have a huge bearing on whether or not the 49ers win this game.
Jacoby Jones, WR/ST, Baltimore Ravens
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Jacoby Jones has the ability to change the outcome of a game in one fell swoop.
He's made his mark in the league as a special-teams dynamo, running back four punts and three kickoffs for touchdowns in his career, including three special-teams touchdowns in 2012.
Jones is also the man responsible for sinking the Denver Broncos' playoff hopes, as he caught the game-tying touchdown over Rahim Moore in the divisional round.
He possesses blazing speed and excellent open-field moves, and if the 49ers leave him unguarded for even one second on Sunday, you can be sure Joe Flacco will find him for a quick-strike score.
Jones may well be the biggest X-factor the Ravens have heading into Super Bowl XLVII, and it won't surprise me in the least if he makes a game-changing play that benefits Baltimore on Sunday.
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