ATLANTA — Marshon Lattimore wasn’t going to give up the reception.
It meant too much. If the Atlanta Falcons had converted in the closing minute of the first half Thursday night against the New Orleans Saints, it would mean going into halftime trailing by three, with Atlanta due to receive the kickoff.
That would have put the Saints in a perilous position, and Lattimore was determined to do something about it.
It looked like the Saints cornerback knew what was coming as soon as the ball was snapped. He got physical with Jones, using all 5 of the yards in which contact is allowed, preventing Jones from running a slant. Matt Ryan either didn’t see it or thought he saw something was there, and let the pass fly.
It was too easy. Lattimore pulled it in and ran it back, putting the Saints in field-goal position.
New Orleans blew the opportunity with an illegal formation on a field-goal attempt as time expired in the second quarter of a 20-17 loss. But the rookie cornerback did his part. Lattimore also showed the world what he’s been doing all season in a primetime game by going toe-to-toe with what might be the league’s best wide receiver.
It wasn’t Lattimore’s best game. He didn’t shut down Jones the way he smothered Green Bay’s Davante Adams, or how he made it look like he dropped a king-sized sheet over a twin-sized bed when up against New England’s Brandin Cooks in Week 2.
But he held his own during the loss.
In his first game back after suffering a sprained ankle on the opening drive of game against Washington three weeks ago, Lattimore matched up with Jones on 18 passing plays and allowed four receptions on seven targets for 79 yards, between trips to the sidelines to receive oxygen due to illness.
"He did good. He was out there coughing blood and all that," cornerback Ken Crawley said. "He was hurting out there. He was battling his tail off. (Jones) didn't go off crazy or anything. He did a great job."
Lattimore denied that he was coughing blood, but admitted that he wasn't feeling well, which led to him leaving the game at times to get oxygen.
As far as the battle between Lattimore and Jones is concerned, the first half could be considered a draw — and the interception might have been needed to pull it there.
But some of Jones' early production was the result of a fluke play. On the first series of the game, Lattimore got his legs tangled with Atlanta tight end Austin Hooper, which caused him to fall to the ground and allowed Jones to get open over the middle on a crossing route. A short gain turned into a long one when safety Vonn Bell missed a tackle, which allowed Jones to run for 38 yards.
The yards still count, and they go against Lattimore’s total, but they need to be in context. There are no excuses on the other receptions he allowed during the first half. Jones got deep down the sideline for a 21-yard gain on a back-shoulder catch, and again for a gain of 7 when he used the traffic underneath to get free on a crossing route.
And there was also a pass interference called on Lattimore when he sprawled out to break up an in route to Jones during the first quarter.
But Lattimore got the better of Jones on a few plays during the opening half as well. He was in coverage on two go routes that fell incomplete, one of which came thanks to Cam Jordan beating an offensive tackle and creating pressure. The other was a bad throw. And then came the pick.
All in all, the rookie thought he held his own, but he felt he could have done better.
"Every time I give up one catch I'm mad," Lattimore said. "Average."
Lattimore started out in coverage on another interception on a pass intended for Jones, but passed him off to Marcus Williams in the back corner of the end zone and covered a lower zone. It capped a stretch where Ryan threw three interceptions in four passes, with the other pick being recorded by safety Chris Banjo.
The pass interference ended up being a wash since Jones was called for pushing off on Lattimore in the second half, but the cornerback gave it back when he was called for holding Jones later in the game.
There wasn’t much more action between the two. Atlanta kept the ball on the ground during the second half and took advantage of a leaky New Orleans run defense. And Lattimore took some snaps off during the second half to get oxygen on the sideline. The only other catch he gave up was a 13-yard gain on an in route during the fourth quarter.
"He's one of the best receivers in the league," Lattimore said. "I tried to make sure he wasn't the reason they won as much as I could. He's one of the best."
In one of his bigger tests of the season, coming off of an injury, Lattimore showed he can hang with the NFL's best on a night when he clearly wasn’t fully healthy. That should bode well for this defense moving forward — not that his talent was ever a question.