NEW ORLEANS - Ravens RB coach Wilbert Montgomery has played in one Super Bowl and coached in another, losing the first and winning the second. He has been a player and coach in the NFL for a combined 25 years, so he has pretty good perspective on these sorts of things.
In Montgomery's mind, the X-factor of Super Bowl XLVII is likely to be someone unexpected. And given that both teams love - and are successful at - running the football, there's a good chance it could be someone in the backfield. Naturally, Montgomery picked his secret weapon from the Ravens' roster.
"In these kind of games, the run game can be huge, the passing game can be huge, but it's always the unknown person who is going to rise up," Montgomery said. "As much as you know Ray Rice is the central guy, it's probably going to be an unknown guy who does something special.
"Bernard Pierce is my dark horse. He's special. This time next year, everyone is going to want to know, ‘Who is this guy?' To me, he's my poor man's Adrian Peterson. He's just like Peterson in a lot of ways; he's that good."
High praise for a player with zero NFL starts and a mere 108 career carries. Nonetheless, consider Montgomery convinced.
Pierce had been averaging 5.2 carries per game up through Week 14, serving as Rice's backup. But after the change from Cam Cameron to Jim Caldwell at offensive coordinator, Pierce's role started to increase. In Weeks 16 and 17, he rushed a combined 40 times for 212 yards, and in three playoff games, Pierce has averaged 6.3 yards a carry. In the past five games, he has runs of 43 and 78 yards.
"From the time he stepped out on the practice field, you could see he was a very talented guy," Caldwell said. "Wilbert had been pushing for this guy early on: ‘Hey, let's get this guy a few more touches.'"
It's not as if Rice is being benched, or for the 49ers, that LaMichael James is taking carries away from Frank Gore. It's just that both Super Bowl teams have found a way to successfully integrate their rookie backup backs into the lineup and truly unveil a two-headed attack at the position.
"Look at what we have and what (the 49ers) have," Rice said. "Everybody has a role. We can interchange guys and not miss a beat."
The 49ers have three major running threats - Gore, James and QB Colin Kaepernick. Their multi-faceted rushing attack features a lot of interesting wrinkles, such as trapping from the pistol formation, which is seldom seen in the NFL, or even college. There are heavy sets on offense with additional offensive linemen, extra tight ends, multiple backs and fullbacks and unbalanced lines.
Page 2 of 3 - Their game is built foundationally on power, but it's highlighted with speed, too. Gore won't break a lot of long rushes - he hasn't broken a run longer than 26 yards since Week Seven - but he's averaging a robust 4.8 yards per carry in the postseason with three TDs.
James has come alive, too. He was lost in the RB shuffle, not playing in the team's first 12 games in his rookie season. But when Kendall Hunter, Gore's backup, went down with an injury, it was James' opportunity. The explosive back from Oregon started slowly in spot duty his first three games, but has averaged 6.9 yards per carry in Week 17 and the two playoff games combined. James' bolt-out-of-the-blue 15-yard TD against the Falcons helped the 49ers claw back from a 17-0 deficit in the NFC championship game.
"It's great seeing LaMichael come in and seeing him change," Gore said. "When he first got in he was not playing that much, and now he is helping us get wins. It feels good to see those guys out there making plays."
And of course, there's Kaepernick. Not only are his legs a major weapon, but he also can open things up for Gore and James. That's exactly what happened in Atlanta when the Falcons overplayed the QB keeper, leaving the inside runs wide open.
"Anytime you have a quarterback that is as fast as a running back it adds a different thing," James said. "You can throw the ball, run the ball or do anything you want to do. (Kaepernick) is great."
The 49ers' and Ravens' front offices clearly have similar approaches to the RB position. Both Gore (third round, 2005) and Rice (second round, 2008) were higher-round picks, and despite the two teams signing those players to extensions in the past few seasons, they also protected their assets well. In a nice bit of roster feng shui, the 49ers drafted James in Round Two and the Ravens picked Pierce a round later in 2012.
One other common component: a fullback. Both teams carry them, and good ones – Baltimore's Vonta Leach and San Francisco's Bruce Miller – at that. That's a rarity. Most teams prefer to carry an extra tight end these days in lieu of a lead-blocking fullback, but Leach says there are advantages to going old school with an escort through the hole.
"You have to have somebody at the point of attack," he said. "Tight ends 90 percent of the time attack the runner. You notice running backs and fullbacks take the same steps and the fullbacks guide the running back through the holes and uses his eyes."
In a season in which Adrian Peterson came up nine yards short of breaking the all-time rushing mark and a sixth-round pick, Washington's Alfred Morris, ran for 1,613 yards, perhaps this cyclical league isn't going away from the run as much as the pundits had thought.
Page 3 of 3 - "With the running-back value said to be going down, it's been really special to see what the running backs are doing this year," Rice said. "It seemed like the running backs came out with chips on their shoulders this year with everybody saying we're going down in value.
"We're not going anywhere. I am just happy our value is still high. And there's no hate when the next guy comes in and succeeds. We want our (backups) to do well, and they have."
If that means Pierce, and not Rice, is the Super Bowl hero as Montgomery presaged, that's just fine with him – provided it ends with a win.
"I don't care if we run it, throw it, if someone else is doing the work," Rice said, "we can do it any old way as long as we win."