Who Will Be the Surprise Star This Time?
By Kevin Duffy
ATLANTA -- Over the past two years, no player had torched the Patriots quite like Tyreek Hill.
A pair of regular-season games for Hill resulted in 275 receiving yards, four touchdowns, and zero answers from an outmatched Patriots secondary.
Yet, the plan of attack in the AFC Championship Game didn’t involve Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson, or even No. 3 cornerback Jason McCourty.
The Pats used their fourth cornerback, Jonathan Jones, to run with Hill all game. Safety Devin McCourty doubled him throughout.
Jones did a tremendous job, holding Hill without a catch. The star receiver’s lone reception came against rookie cornerback Keion Crossen.
An undersized corner with blazing speed, Jones fell out of the regular rotation toward the end of the regular season, averaging 14.5 defensive snaps over the final six weeks. He drew arguably the most important assignment of the season.
“You always have to be ready,” Jones said last week. “That’s one of the things that is shown here in this organization time and time again. You never know when your number is going to be called. You just have to be ready and stay ready.”
That’s life with Bill Belichick, whose game plans aren’t always predictable.
“Coaches do a good job with the game plan week in and week out, putting us in the best situation to try to win the game,” Jones said. “It’s up to us to go out and execute.”
Jones unquestionably was the surprise star of the AFC Championship Game. Which players are candidates for a breakout game in Super Bowl LIII?
Let’s take a look ...
WR Cordarrelle Patterson: The Patriots fed the ball to Patterson 4.2 times per game in the regular season, mostly on rushing plays.
Through two postseason games, Patterson has touched the ball only three times, though.
That could change in Super Bowl LIII. The Pats experienced a high level of success using end-arounds during the regular season. They averaged 9.6 yards per carry on those plays, and Patterson was the top option.
Don’t be surprised to see them get the ball in Patterson’s hands against a Rams defense that will be focused on Sony Michel and the traditional ground game.
DE/LB John Simon: Doesn’t play a ton, but makes the most of his opportunities. He teamed with Dont’a Hightower for a critical stop on third-and-short in the AFC Championship Game. In the third quarter, he drove Kansas City tackle Mitchell Schwartz backward and converged on Patrick Mahomes with Lawrence Guy. Simon probably won’t play more than 20 snaps, but he’s talented enough to deliver a game-changing play.
FB James Develin: He’s the key to the Patriots rushing attack. All eight of their rushing touchdowns this postseason came with Develin on the field. The Rams have a unique a line, but their front seven as a whole is undersized. Inside linebacker Cory Littleton is 228 pounds. Mark Barron checks in at 214. The Patriots have a huge advantage with their blockers at the second level of the Rams defense. That starts with Develin.
WR Phillip Dorsett: After playing a major role in the opening month of the season, Dorsett took a backseat when Josh Gordon arrived and Julian Edelman returned from suspension. His name was floated at the trade deadline, but ultimately he was happy he stayed put.
Now he’s the Patriots’ No. 3 receiver. Dorsett has maximized his opportunities this season, as we saw in the AFC Championship Game when he held on for a difficult 29-yard touchdown catch.
Dorsett caught 76.2 percent of his targets this year.
LB Albert McClellan: A special teams-only player, McClellan has made a handful of huge plays since joining the Patriots in November. He blocked one punt against Miami and deflected another. He pounced on a Desmond King muffed punt along the sideline in the AFC Divisional Round thumping of the Chargers. In what is expected to be a tight Super Bowl, a special teams play could be the difference.