Unsung Heroes from Super Bowl Winning Teams

Malcolm Smith was one of the lesser known members of the Seahawks' "Legion of Boom" defense, but rose to the occasion in Super Bowl XLVII to earn MVP honors.

With another Super Bowl in the books, now feels like a great time to look back on championship teams of yore. For every Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, or Tom Brady, there are countless players whose contributions to the title chase go unnoticed and, sometimes, even forgotten entirely. That’s why we’re here to bring some attention back to these deserving players who made indelible marks on their team’s title run.

A look now at the Super Bowl winners of the 21st Century and their unsung heroes:

2000 Ravens

Offense: Brandon Stokley, WR; Defense: Jamie Sharper, LB

Stokley did not play until Week 10, but immediately made his presence felt by scoring a touchdown on his first reception of the season that broke the Ravens’ five-game (!) touchdown drought. Stokley added another touchdown in Week 15 in a mostly-inauspicious season, but came up huge by opening the scoring in Super Bowl XXXV with a 38-yard touchdown reception. As for Sharper, he was one of many heroes on Baltimore’s star-laden, historic 2000 defense, but seemed to shine brightest in the biggest games. After an interception and five forced fumbles during the regular season, Sharper recorded two sacks and a game-clinching, red-zone interception in the AFC Championship Game, then followed that up with an interception in the Super Bowl.

2001 Patriots

Offense: J.R. Redmond, RB; Defense: Otis Smith, CB

Hard to believe that the Pats were once a league-darling underdog, but Redmond and Smith epitomized a 2001 New England club where the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. Redmond began to emerge in the postseason after just 251 scrimmage yards in the regular season, with nine catches for 69 yards in the postseason but four going for first downs and three coming on the team’s game-winning drive in Super Bowl XXXVI. Smith was 36 years old during the 2001 season, but found the fountain of youth with a team-leading five interceptions in addition to two fumble recoveries and two sacks. He blanketed Rams Pro Bowl WR Torry Holt in the Super Bowl, holding him to just two catches for six yards while also recording a third-quarter interception that set up a Patriots field goal.

2002 Buccaneers

Offense: Joe Jurevicius, WR; Defense: Brian Kelly, CB

Jurevicius, who played in three Super Bowls in a six-year span for three different teams, sure picked his spots in 2002. His season numbers were somewhat modest, but his biggest game was a critical division showdown against Atlanta in Week 14 when he tallied eight catches for 100 yards and two touchdowns. He played through personal tragedy in the postseason to notch a big first-half touchdown against San Francisco in the divisional round, then made his only catch of the NFC Championship Game count big time when he went for 71 yards to set up a go-ahead touchdown run before tallying 78 yards in the Super Bowl against Oakland. And on a team littered with future Hall of Famers, it was Kelly who led not only the Bucs but the entire league with eight regular-season interceptions. Kelly played 10 of his 11 NFL seasons with the Bucs, notching 22 career picks.

2003 Patriots

Offense: Bethel Johnson, WR/KR; Defense: Tyrone Poole, CB.

Both players made some of their biggest contributions in perhaps the most important regular-season game of 2003. Johnson, who scored two touchdowns as a wide receiver but mainly excelled on special teams, averaged a whopping 28.2 yards on kick returns, and scored his lone touchdown in a 38-34 win at Indianapolis in Week 13 that ultimately allowed the Pats to earn homefield advantage throughout the postseason. Johnson had two back-breaking returns in that game, while Poole recorded an interception and came up with a pass defensed on the game-winning goal-line stand. Poole, who saved the game with a key pass breakup in overtime a week earlier, tied Ty Law for the team lead with six interceptions for the season, and added a key fumble recovery in the AFC Championship Game.

2004 Patriots

Offense: Daniel Graham, TE; Defense: Eugene Wilson, FS

To be fair, both players had strong seasons in 2003, but both came up equally big when needed in 2004. Wilson matched his rookie season with four interceptions, but that was good enough to lead New England’s banged-up secondary that season. Wilson added two interceptions and a fumble recovery in the playoffs. Graham, meanwhile, made the most of his opportunities that season. He was fourth on the team in receptions and receiving yards, but tied for the lead with seven touchdowns. (Honorable mention for 2003-04 Patriots: Jarvis Green, DE).

2005 Steelers

Offense: Cedric Wilson, WR; Defense: Chris Hope, FS

Wilson saved his best for the postseason, notching his only two touchdowns of the season in wins over the Bengals in the wild card round and the Broncos in the AFC Championship Game. Hope played in the shadow of Troy Polamalu but started all 16 games at free safety and led the team with three interceptions while adding a forced fumble and fumble recovery, and ended up third with 97 tackles.

2006 Colts

Offense: Joseph Addai, RB; Defense: Cato June, LB

You have to dig pretty deep on this Colts offense to find someone who qualifies as “unsung,” but we’ll go with Addai, who made history by topping the 1,000-yard mark as a rookie despite not starting a single game behind Dominic Rhodes on the depth chart. Addai finally became the starter in January and February, when he averaged 73.5 yards per game with two touchdowns. June saved his best game for the brightest lights, notching two of his three interceptions on the season against Tom Brady and the Patriots on Sunday Night Football in Week 9 in a game that, similar to the 2003 Patriots, earned the Colts homefield advantage in the AFC title game this time around.

2007 Giants

Offense: Ahmad Bradshaw, RB; Defense: Corey Webster, CB

This Giants team was basically made up entirely of unsung heroes, so it feels like the possibilities are endless here. But let’s go with two of the team’s biggest postseason heroes in Bradshaw and Webster. Both players came up with crucial plays in the Giants’ Super Bowl XLII upset of the Patriots, and the former’s biggest play saved his own crucial mistake from possibly derailing the game. Though Bradshaw, the 250th overall pick in the draft that year, did not start a game as a rookie, he tallied 208 rushing yards in four postseason games. But arguably his most important play was a recovery of his own fumble when a botched handoff appeared to land right in the arms of Patriots’ linebacker Pierre Woods. Bradshaw somehow wrangled the ball free, and the Giants maintained possession. As for Webster, his playoff contributions were much more traditional. After just one regular season interception, Webster doubled that number in the playoffs, including one that set up the game-winning field goal in overtime of the NFC Championship Game. He capped his incredible postseason with a game-saving pass break-up on the Patriots’ final drive of the Super Bowl.

2008 Steelers

Offense: Nate Washington, WR; Defense: LaMarr Woodley, LB

Woodley was not the biggest name on this star-studded Pittsburgh defense, but he may have had the best season of all in 2008. He led the team with four fumble recoveries and finished second with 11.5 sacks, adding two forced fumbles and an interception for the league’s top defense — one that gave up 364 yards fewer than the next-closest team. Washington gets the nod over Mewelde Moore (five rushing TDs) by finishing third in receiving yards and receiving TDs behind Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes and Hines Ward.

2009 Saints

Offense: Robert Meachem, WR; Defense: Jonathan Vilma, LB

Meachem’s heroics were on full display in Week 13 at Washington, when he helped keep the Saints’ undefeated season alive with an incredible strip-and-score of Kareem Moore following a Drew Brees interception to tie the game just before halftime in an eventual 33-30 OT win. Meachem wasn’t too shabby for the whole year, either, notching 722 receiving yards (third on the team) while tying for the team lead with nine TD catches. Defensively, sure, you know about all of Darren Sharper’s big plays and Tracy Porter’s Super Bowl-sealing interception, but where would New Orleans have been without the rookie Vilma’s team-leading 110 tackles, three interceptions, and two sacks?

2010 Packers

Offense: John Kuhn, FB; Defense: Sam Shields, CB

It’s not often we get to sing the praises of a fullback, but Kuhn more than earned it for this Green Bay club with 378 scrimmage yards and six touchdowns (four rushing, two receiving) while also paving the way for strong seasons by running backs Brandon Jackson and James Starks. Shields made an indelible mark as a rookie despite only six regular-season and two postseason starts. After just two regular-season picks, he matched that total during the team’s postseason run while also adding a forced fumble and three passes defensed. That the Packers managed to hold off Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl after first-half injuries to Shields and Hall of Famer Charles Woodson was all the more remarkable.

2011 Giants

Offense: Mario Manningham, WR; Defense: Michael Boley, LB

It’s hard to not to feel like Manningham is synonymous with a lot of memories about this 2011 Giants team given his incredible Super Bowl XLVI sideline catch on the game-winning drive, but Mannningham had an all-around strong postseason with three touchdowns after just four scores in the regular-season for Big Blue. On defense, Boley is certainly not the headline name on a team with Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, and Osi Umenyiora, but had a stellar season of his own. Boley was second on the team with 93 tackles and tied for the team lead with three fumble recoveries over 14 games (13 starts). He also doubled his regular-season sack total with two in four postseason games.

2012 Ravens

Offense: Jacoby Jones, WR/KR; Defense: Dannell Ellerbe, LB

Jones’ heroics and subsequent celebrity status don’t exactly scream “unsung,” but any time a player who is not a top-of-the-depth-chart guy carries a team in January and February, he deserves all the accolades. Jones had only 30 regular-season catches and one touchdown, but made his mark on special teams with three return touchdowns. But in the postseason, he made three enormous and memorable plays. His 70-yard Hail Mary reception in Denver in the divisional round sent the game to overtime, and he had a 56-yard TD catch followed by a 108-yard kickoff return for a score in Super Bowl XLVII. Ellerbe, meanwhile, finished third on the team with 4.5 sacks and then recorded a key interceptions late in the AFC Championship Game.

2013 Seahawks

Offense: Max Unger, C; Defense: Malcolm Smith, LB

Like Kuhn, Unger gives us an opportunity to shine the light on someone other than the usual suspects. In 2013, Unger joined Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch as Seahawks offensive players to earn Pro Bowl nods. He started 13 games and one of the games he was absent was one of the team’s three losses. Seattle finished the season with the league’s fourth-best rushing offense. As for Smith, it’s very hard to pick from Seattle’s star-studded “Legion of Boom” defense, so we’ll go with the Super Bowl MVP Smith, who also sealed the Hawks’ NFC Championship Game win with an interception.

2014 Patriots

Offense: Shane Vereen, RB; Defense: Dont’a Hightower, LB

The Patriots seemed to have a different Swiss Army knife offensive hero in all of their Super Bowl-winning seasons, and Vereen was at the center of it all in 2014. He toted the rock more than anything New England running back and finished second in rush yards while also ranking fourth on the club in receptions and receiving yards. On defense, Hightower gets the slight nod over team-leading-tackler Jamie Collins for his game-saving trip of Lynch on the play just before Malcolm Butler’s game-winning interception. Of course, Hightower wasn’t just a one-trick pony: during the regular year, he was second on the team in tackles (89) and sacks (six) despite missing four games.

2015 Broncos

Offense: C.J. Anderson, RB; Defense: Danny Trevathan, LB

Anderson was a breakout star in 2015, racking up 720 rushing yards despite making just six starts before adding two rushing touchdowns in the playoffs. His most memorable play came in Week 12 in the snow against the Patriots, when he ripped off a 48-yard touchdown run in overtime to clinch a 30-24 victory over the 10-0 Patriots that would ultimately give Denver homefield advantage in the AFC Championship Game (stop me if you’ve heard that one before). Trevathan was the constant on a defense filled with big-name talent, pacing the club with 109 tackles while adding two interceptions. In the postseason, Trevathan continued his stellar year with two fumble recoveries.

2016 Patriots

Offense: James White, RB; Defense: Trey Flowers, DE

We mentioned the Patriots seemingly featuring a new Swiss Army knife every Super Bowl-winning season, and James White very well could have earned MVP honors with his 14-catch, 110-yard, three-touchdown performance in the big game that included a two-point conversion and ended with White extending the ball over the goal line for the winning score. White was second on the team in catches and TD receptions during the regular season as well. Flowers was tops on the team with seven regular-season sacks, but proved to be an incredibly clutch postseason performer during his three active postseasons with New England, totaling 5.5 sacks. Flowers notched 2.5 of those in Super Bowl LI, including a critical one of Matt Ryan late in the game that ultimately forced the Falcons out of field goal range and allowed the Pats to drive for the game-tying score.

2017 Eagles

Offense: Corey Clement, RB; Defense: Patrick Robinson, CB

Clement did a little bit of everything for the Eagles, totaling 444 scrimmage yards and six touchdowns during the regular season. He came up huge in Super Bowl LII, tallying 100 yards receiving on just four catches, including a 22-yard touchdown catch. Robinson, an 11-year veteran, made his one season in Philadelphia count with four interceptions, a fumble recovery, and a sack. His crowning moment came in the NFC Championship Game against the Vikings, when he picked off Case Keenum and returned it 50 yards for a score after Minnesota had taken an early 7-0 lead. The pick-six kicked off a run of 38 unanswered points by Philly to punch its ticket to the Super Bowl.

2018 Patriots

Offense: Cordarrelle Patterson, WR/KR; Defense: Kyle Van Noy, LB

As much as I wanted to add another member to the “Swiss Army Train” in RB Rex Burkhead, whose most memorable moments included the game-winning run in OT of the AFC Championship Game and taking part in one of the prettiest downed punts you’ll ever see, I could not overlook the standout moments of Patterson. Like Robinson, Patterson spent just one of his 11 NFL seasons in Foxborough, but certainly made the most of it. His season included time where he was utilized as a running back in addition to receiver, as he tallied 475 scrimmage yards and four touchdowns. But special teams was where he made his biggest mark, with 28.8 yards per kick return and a 95-yard score in a big win at Chicago in October. On defense, no one was more consistent than Van Noy, who saved his best for the playoffs. The veteran linebacker led the team in tackles during the regular year with 92, tied for the club lead with two fumble recoveries, and contributed 3.5 sacks. But in the postseason, Van Noy elevated his play. He procured two sacks and a forced fumble in the AFC Championship Game, including one that pushed the Chiefs out of field goal range, and then added another QB takedown in the Super Bowl win over the Rams.

2019 Chiefs

Offense: Mitchell Schwartz, OT; Defense: Bashaud Breeland, CB

Another O-lineman makes the cut! Schwartz was not only good for KC during its title run, but downright dominant in keeping Patrick Mahomes upright. According to Pro Football Focus, he was one of just three lineman to record a Top 10 pass blocking and run blocking grade during the regular season, then soared to new heights during the postseason with a top lineman grade and just one pressure in 142 pass blocking snaps. Breeland came up with a few clutch plays during the regular season, including a game-turning, 100-yard fumble return TD against the Lions in a Week 4 comeback win, and a game-winning pass break-up on Julian Edelman in a Week 14 win in New England. He capped his season in style, picking off Jimmy Garoppolo early in the second quarter of Super Bowl LIV to set up a field goal.

2020 Buccaneers

Offense: Scotty Miller, WR; Defense: Sean Murphy-Bunting, CB

Miller finished fourth on the team in receiving yards despite only starting five of the 16 games he played in, then came up with one of the biggest plays of the Bucs’ Super Bowl run when he hauled in a 39-yard touchdown pass from Brady with one second left in the first half to extend the Bucs lead over the Packers to 21-10. Of course, Miller wasn’t alone in turning it up a notch in the postseason. Murphy-Bunting rose to the occasion in January and February. He recorded just one interception in the regular season, but tripled that productivity by notching a pick in each of the Bucs’ NFC playoff games. In fact, it was Murphy-Bunting’s pick near midfield that set up Miller’s key touchdown right before half in the championship game.

2021 Rams

Offense: Tyler Higbee, TE; Defense: Leonard Floyd, LB

Considering just how much Cooper Kupp carried the offense in the postseason, it’s not easy to pluck an unsung hero out of this Rams group, but Higbee meets the criteria for finishing second on the team in receptions. Unfortunately, a knee injury in the title game kept him out of action in the Super Bowl, but he was one of Matthew Stafford’s most reliable targets for most of the 2021 season. At the time, Floyd did not have the name recognition of Aaron Donald or Jalen Ramsey, but finished second on the team with 9.5 sacks before adding a couple more in the playoffs.

2022 Chiefs

Offense: Jerick McKinnon, RB; Defense: L’Jarius Sneed, CB

McKinnon was a jack-of-all-trades for these Chiefs, excelling in both the run and pass game. He totaled 803 scrimmage yards and reached double-figures with 10 touchdowns (one rushing, nine receiving). His most important — and smartest — play came in the final two minutes of the Super Bowl, when he eschewed a touchdown and slid down just shy of the goal line instead, allowing the Chiefs to run out the majority of the clock before kicking the game-winning field goal. Sneed proved to be a star-in-the-making by leading or co-leading the team in both interceptions (tied, three) and forced fumbles (three), with an impressive 3.5 sacks to boot. He gets the slight nod over Nick Bolton, who had a strong season and capped it with a 36-yard fumble return touchdown in the Super Bowl.

2023 Chiefs

Offense: Justin Watson, WR; Defense: Justin Reid, FS

Reid has been one shrewd pickup by GM Brett Veach, and after a strong first year in KC really stepped up in year two. He helped anchor a suddenly-elite Chiefs secondary, and despite the fact that he only recorded one interception, notched three regular-season sacks before tacking on another 1.5 in the postseason. As for Watson, it’s hard to envision any Chiefs receiver being “heroic” in a year when the receiving corps took so much heat. But Watson quietly made some big plays throughout the course of the season. He led the team in yards per catch at 17.0 while contributing three touchdowns despite starting just eight of 16 games played. He recorded three catches for 54 yards in the Super Bowl and alertly recovered a fumble by fellow receiver Rashee Rice.

Be the first to comment on "Unsung Heroes from Super Bowl Winning Teams"

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.