Super Bowl XLVIII: Under-the-Radar Players to Note
Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman got the ball rolling as soon as possible with his bombastic post-victory interview. The spotlight burns brightly on the talented cornerback—perhaps in a calculated manner—and it washes over other big names in the game.
Quarterback Peyton Manning figures to be the biggest of them all, and he will duke it out with heralded second-year quarterback Russell Wilson. Receivers Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker and running backs Marshawn Lynch and Knowshon Moreno will also play big parts, naturally.
But who are some of the lesser-known—or at least lesser-touted—players who could make a big impact in the game? Here are four players to watch on each team in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Doug Baldwin, WR, Seattle Seahawks
Seattle receiver Percy Harvin quietly returned to practice this week after being concussed against the Saints a couple of weeks ago. As the Super Bowl approaches, this should become a bigger story. Harvin is, after all, the most dynamic player not named Russell Wilson on that Seahawks offense.
While Harvin adds a much-needed spark to the offense—assuming his bad luck doesn't get him knocked out of the game again—fellow receiver Doug Baldwin could have himself a big game, too.
As Bleacher Report's Tyson Langland details, Baldwin could be Seattle's biggest X-factor:
Baldwin is in for an uphill battle on Super Bowl Sunday, but that’s OK—because he is playing his best football of the season right now, and the Seahawks will help him succeed by moving him around in a wide variety of formations.
Furthermore, Harvin’s return will present Baldwin with more favorable one-on-one matchups down the field.
There’s a lot to like about the undrafted free agent’s chances in the biggest game of his career, which is why it’s not too premature to believe he will be the unsung X-Factor versus defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio’s defense.
Super Bowl lore is filled with unsung heroes. Baldwin could be primed to etch his name onto that list.
Terrance Knighton, DT, Denver Broncos
The Patriots certainly felt his presence in the AFC Championship Game, but defensive tackle Terrance Knighton will probably get lost in the Super Bowl shuffle.
The fifth-year defensive lineman had four tackles and a sack against New England, helping stuff a Patriots rushing attack that had seen running back LeGarrette Blount run wild in recent weeks. Blount had just six yards after amassing 166 and four touchdowns the week before, and Knighton was a big reason for that.
Knighton's presence in the middle of that Denver defensive line will be crucial on Super Bowl Sunday, given he is on the first line of defense against raging beast—that's what "RB" stands for, right?—Marshawn Lynch.
He will need a repeat performance of the AFC Championship Game if the Broncos have a shot at containing the beast for four quarters.
Zach Miller, TE, Seattle Seahawks
As good as that Seahawks defense has been this year, the offense is going to have to put up some points.
Opportunities for fringe offensive contributors are sure to arise with all the attention being paid to Marshawn Lynch on the ground and Percy Harvin all over the field.
One of those unexpected performers could be Zach Miller, who could be a huge X-factor in the passing game. The big tight end had the third-most receiving yards on his team this season, though that amounted to just 387. He did tie his career high with five touchdowns, though.
The Broncos allowed the third-most receiving yards to tight ends this season, a statistic that bodes well for Miller and the Seahawks offense. You know Seattle will be moving the ball well if Miller gets loose for four or five catches in the game.
Andre Caldwell, WR, Denver Broncos
Much of the Denver offense has been in the spotlight at one time or another. Quarterback Peyton Manning is the likely MVP of the league, of course, and he has studs all around him.
Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker certainly get all the well-deserved publicity at receiver, as does Julius Thomas at tight end. They will play their big parts in the passing game on Super Bowl Sunday. But one or two catches or missed opportunities elsewhere could tip the balance, and Andre Caldwell could be the one at the scales.
Caldwell did a nice job filling in for the injured Welker, but he has returned to his old bench role since Welker's return. That would explain why Caldwell has just two catches total in the playoffs.
Each of those catches went for a first down, however, extending scoring drives in each case.
Who knows if the Broncos might utilize Caldwell a bit more in the Super Bowl given everything else the Seahawks will have to worry about on defense. Or perhaps the Broncos will stick him on the right side against Richard Sherman—who almost exclusively lines up on that side of the field—and use him as a decoy.
Alright, that last one might be far-fetched, but Caldwell doesn't need many snaps to make an impact.
Brandon Mebane, DT, Seattle Seahawks
Speaking of Seattle's defensive line, one guy who doesn't get enough credit is tackle Brandon Mebane.
The big man in the middle was one of Pro Football Focus' top-rated defensive tackles this season, a big reason for the Seahawks' success along that defensive front this year.
Mebane was the third-best defensive tackle in the NFL, per Per Football Focus (subscription required), and he had far fewer snaps to amass a positive rating than the top two guys, Gerald McCoy and Ndamukong Suh.
With all the attention Peyton Manning and that passing game garners, it's easy to forget that running back Knowshon Moreno and the running game have been integral to Denver's offensive success.
A big game from Mebane could go a long way toward neutralizing that rushing attack.
Chris Clark, OT, Denver Broncos
Archie Manning might have crossed himself—if he is Catholic, anyway—when stud offensive tackle Ryan Clady went down for the count early this season.
After all, Peyton Manning—Archie's son—had just lost one of the better left tackles in the league. With multiple neck surgeries in the rearview mirror, Manning couldn't afford poor pass protection.
Luckily for him, Chris Clark stepped up and filled in Clady's shoes rather nicely.
Clark will go up against a fearsome pass rush on that Seahawks front line. His play could make all the difference in the world for Manning and that offense.
Byron Maxwell, CB, Seattle Seahawks
All eyes will be on cornerback Richard Sherman—as much as can be, at any rate, considering broadcast camera angles don't typically follow cornerbacks—but it's his partner in theft that could have a game-changing presence in that defensive backfield.
Byron Maxwell stepped in for the injured and eventually suspended Brandon Browner this season as a bit of an unknown in an otherwise stout secondary. He did a marvelous job, as Sherman himself wrote for The MMQB earlier this month:
Winning in the NFL has more to do with survival than it does talent. The best teams in the league are only as good as the guys on the bottom of the depth chart who you’ve never heard of, who get called on when injuries and suspensions transform rosters in midseason. They’re the guys who find themselves covering Michael Crabtree or Anquan Boldin in the NFC Championship Game, and sometimes they make the difference between winning and losing.
For the Seahawks, Byron Maxwell is that guy. And he’s one of the many reasons I believe we’ll not only survive, but also dominate on our way to the Super Bowl. ...
... Everybody comes into this league with a weakness, just like each team enters the season with holes in its roster. The trick is turning those weaknesses into strengths. That’s what Byron Maxwell gave us.
With all the receiving options at Manning's disposal, Maxwell is going to have the challenge of his life in Super Bowl XLVIII. Sherman seems confident Maxwell can rise to the occasion.
Danny Trevathan, OLB, Denver Broncos
Losing outside linebacker Von Miller was a huge blow for the Broncos. In other obvious news, Peyton Manning is pretty good.
Fortunately for that defense, Danny Trevathan has been there to mitigate the damage this year, both when Miller was suspended and after he was knocked out for the season.
Trevathan isn't a pass-rushing terror like Miller, but his solid all-around play has buoyed a Denver front seven that might have collapsed without him. He led the team in tackles this season and was the 11th-best 4-3 outside linebacker in the league, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
He had a big game against the Patriots, as The MMQB's Robert Klemko helped illuminate:
With just under three minutes left in the third quarter and Denver up, 20-3, Brady dropped back on 3rd-and-2 and located running back Shane Vereen tip-toeing across the middle. The throw was perfect, and the catch and first down seemed complete until Trevathan came crashing down from his weakside linebacker spot to separate Vereen from the ball. It was a moment of triumph for the undersized 23-year-old linebacker who started the season as backup and took offense to the popular media opinion that the Patriots would make the AFC Championship Game a shootout (the Vegas over/under: 57.5).
“I usually don’t even watch that media stuff, but this time I took heed to it,” said Trevathan, whose team-high eight tackles were key in holding New England to 64 rushing yards. “I took it as a personal challenge. I showed the D-line and the linebackers in the locker room on Wednesday on my phone. I said we needed to step up.”
The second-year linebacker won't be in the spotlight, but he will have his hands full accounting for Marshawn Lynch—a running back he grew up watching—and helping contain Russell Wilson.
It sounds like he will be up to the challenge.