Unsung Heroes Paved Falcons' Way to Super Bowl, and They Know It

Mike TanierNFL National Lead WriterJanuary 31, 2017

ATLANTA, GA - NOVEMBER 27: Levine Toilolo #80 of the Atlanta Falcons runs after a catch during the second half against the Arizona Cardinals at the Georgia Dome on November 27, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C.  Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

HOUSTON — Overlooked for most of the season and underestimated in the postseason, the Atlanta Falcons are a team loaded with unsung heroes. 

"There's a lot of them," said Devonta Freeman, a star running back who is definitely not among those unheralded masses, at Super Bowl Opening Night on Monday.

"Our offensive line does a great job," said Julio Jones, another one of the Falcons' heroes whose praises have been loudly sung.

"Matt, the wide receivers and the running backs get the [publicity]," Jones added, "but our offensive line keeps Matt Ryan upright and gives the running backs holes to run through."

Fair enough. But all offensive linemen are overlooked, except the Cowboys line and the Hogs of the 1980s Redskins.

The Falcons are unique in that so many of their skill-position players reached the Super Bowl while operating under the radar of media hype. Everyone notes that the Falcons have so many weapons, and it's true. But after Jones, Freeman, Ryan and speedy running back Tevin Coleman, those weapons all start to run together and get crowded out of the spotlight.

HOUSTON, TX - JANUARY 30:  Julio Jones #11 of the Atlanta Falcons speaks with the media during Super Bowl 51 Opening Night at Minute Maid Park on January 30, 2017 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
Tim Warner/Getty Images

So stop dishing out obligatory praise for the big guys, fellas. Who among the receivers, running backs and tight ends deserves a little more of that sweet, sweet "pub"?

"Patrick DiMarco, our fullback," Freeman said after giving the offensive line its due. "That guy does everything unselfishly. A lot of dirty work, he handles."

Mohamed Sanu, who might have qualified as a hidden hero had he not been honored with his own raised podium during Super Bowl Opening Night, agreed with Freeman. "I would say Pat DiMarco. He does everything for us. He's a great, great player."

Predictably, when DiMarco was asked which Falcons deserve more attention, he first praised the offensive line.

Then DiMarco learned that several teammates singled him out. "That's really cool," he said.

"I play fullback, so I understand my role," he added. "And I really enjoy it. I like doing the dirty work."

DiMarco caught just seven passes for 52 yards this season. He didn't take a single handoff. As a fullback in today's NFL, he's lucky to even have a regular offensive role as a lead blocker.

"When your opportunity is called, when you get the ball in your hands, you make the most of it," DiMarco said. "But most of my plays are made when I'm blocking for Tevin or Devonta, or pass-protecting for Matt."

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 22:  Patrick DiMarco #42 of the Atlanta Falcons runs with the ball in the first quarter against  Jake Ryan #47 of the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome on January 22, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Come to think of it, a fullback is practically an offensive lineman, for whom being unsung is almost part of the job description. So who did DiMarco feel deserves an extra sliver of attention?

"Levine Toilolo," DiMarco said. "He's had some big plays receiving the ball, but he's one of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL. That sometimes gets overlooked. He's a great player and an awesome person."

Toilolo, who caught just 13 passes but averaged 20.3 yards per catch and caught opponents like the Seattle Seahawks off guard for big plays, has other admirers in his own huddle. Receiver Taylor Gabriel's voice leapt almost an entire octave when he singled out his teammate.

"Toilolo, man!" Gabriel practically sang. "All he does is make big plays! That man is a monster."

Gabriel had a very personal reason for picking the Falcons' power forward-sized tight end. "He blocked on my jet sweep for a touchdown, just clamping a dude."

Toilolo, for his part, didn't offer praise for any particular teammate but wanted to stress that blocking, particularly by non-linemen, is the key to the Falcons' success.

"Our receivers obviously get credit for the plays they make with the ball," Toilolo said. "But if people actually watch our run game, you see all 11 guys putting great effort into making blocks.

"Our receivers all play a big part in the run game: Justin Hardy, Sanu and, of course, Julio, who is as physical as they come at any position," Toilolo added. "But even guys who are smaller like Gabriel make a lot of big blocks to spring guys open."

Gabriel admitted that blocking wasn't a big part of his game when he played for the Cleveland Browns. "I improved on it," he said.

"You have those big guys like Sanu and Julio in there blocking. When people see me in there, they don't take it seriously. But I can get up on a cat fast."

Gabriel isn't the only Falcons receiver who can get up on a cat and block him. Tight end Austin Hooper didn't have to think for a moment about which offensive teammate deserves a little extra love from the media and fans.

"Justin Hardy," Hooper said. "Man, that guy's the most tenacious, physical blocker we've got in the receiver room. One of the most gritty guys. He plays special teams at a high level. He can play any of the three receiver positions."

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 01: Justin Hardy #16 of the Atlanta Falcons makes a catch out of bounds during the second half against the New Orleans Saints at the Georgia Dome on January 1, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C.  Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Hardy may be the perfect example of an unsung hero.

He caught 21 passes for 203 yards and four touchdowns in the regular season, adding two receptions against the Seahawks in the playoffs.

The numbers don't bring to mind Jerry Rice, but between his scoring, special teams contributions, blocking efforts and (perhaps most importantly) some solid games when Jones was injured this season, Hardy is a big reason why Atlanta had the most prolific offense in the NFL this season.

Still, Hardy was so low-profile that he was impossible to locate during Monday's media session. If asked, he would probably just praise the offensive line anyway.

Jones spoke up for Hardy. "He comes in the game and is very clutch on third downs. ... He makes lots of little plays here and there for us."

The same can be said about lots of contributors for the Falcons. They all make a multitude of little plays here and there.

There's nothing unusual about a mutual admiration society developing among a team's role players. But it takes a special group of role players to help propel a team to the Super Bowl.

The Falcons are here because of Ryan, Jones and the running backs. But they are also here because of fullbacks who can catch, tight ends who can make big plays and clamp on guys, receivers who get up on cats, and all-purpose special teamers who can come off the bench and catch clutch touchdowns.

This is a team of specialists who are versatile but not interchangeable. That's why they attracted so little attention during the season. Fullbacks and hard-blocking receivers lack sizzle, but they also make the Falcons almost impossible to defend.

"It's not about shutting me down," Jones said. "It's about shutting the Atlanta Falcons down."

Few teams have had success with that, and it's because there are just too many Falcons eager to do more than their share of the dirty work.

   

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier