Marshon Lattimore hates giving up receptions.
He wears each one like a loss. Even though he made the Pro Bowl and is a front-runner for the Defensive Rookie of the Year, he approaches each game — and probably every snap — like it could be the one that turns all the good feelings and praise into a land of gray. The Saints rookie cornerback knows that the ledge where appreciation resides is razor-thin.
He doesn't need to worry about that this week after being part of what might be the most memorable play of the season. It was the result of at least a little luck, but a signature moment against New Orleans’ most-hated rival will keep you in the fan base’s good graces for years to come — especially because it was a key moment in the 23-13 win.
The Saints season no one saw coming is headed to the playoffs.
The play will be named — in fact, with the lightning speed of social media, it already has been. The sophomoric will likely settle on calling it the “Butt Pick,” which wouldn’t be an inaccurate portrayal of what happened. Lattimore was in coverage of Marvin Hall when the wide receiver went over the middle and dropped a pass right onto the cornerback’s backside. Safety Marcus Williams tipped the ball up, and Lattimore then secured it. It was a big moment, allowing the Saints to crack the game open before halftime by scoring a touchdown to take a 13-0 lead.
"Somebody's been living right, and God was on our side," safety Vonn Bell said. "I've never seen that before. We've never practiced that. That was God alone."
It was that kind of day for the New Orleans defense. Whenever it needed a big play or favorable call, one seemed to arrive. The ability to perform was cause for concern on a day when the Saints were finding out what life was going to look like in their first game since placing safety Kenny Vaccaro (groin/wrist) and middle linebacker A.J. Klein (groin) on injured reserve. The defense responded with one of its best performances of the season (339 yards surrendered).
New Orleans didn’t have a set or specific way to match up with Atlanta. Sometimes it was a three-safety look, with Rafael Bush joining Bell and Marcus Williams. Other times, P.J. Williams came in as the nickel corner, replacing strongside linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha on defense. That’s likely how life is going to be now without a player like Vaccaro who can handle so many different roles.
It was the guys who weren’t supposed to be playing who made what might have been the greatest impact.
At linebacker, Te’o handled the calls filling in at middle linebacker, and his presence might have been a benefit. He had a few tackles for a loss and made a key play when he picked up a fumble forced by defensive tackle Tyeler Davison near the goal line to end a threat during the third quarter. Having Kikaha, who wouldn’t have been playing if not for the injuries, on the field paid off when he stopped a goal-line run in the fourth quarter.
Further down the rabbit hole, defensive lineman George Johnson probably isn’t even on the team if defensive end Alex Okafor hadn’t torn his Achilles. The veteran pass rusher was in on two sacks Sunday, bringing his total to three in two games.
"I thought our defense was magnificent," coach Sean Payton said. "And I say that with the injuries we've had. There were six or seven starters out of that defensive group. They played real well, and I thought it was the difference in the game."
In the heavyweight battle, it looked like the Lattimore play probably gave up more than he was comfortable with surrendering — especially considering he thinks one catch is too many. The Falcons receiver finished with seven catches for 149 yards. He made four of those catches for 88 yards with the rookie in coverage. Lattimore also might have been in coverage for a 37-yard gain by Jones late in the fourth quarter, but it was difficult to tell on initial viewing if the Saints were in man or zone coverage.
When all was said and done Sunday, the scoreboard read Saints 23, Falcons 13.
Lattimore didn't have much to say about the matchup.
"We won," Lattimore said. "That's all I care about. We won."
Like the last time these teams played, Lattimore shadowed Jones around the field. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan tried to test the rookie several times, and most of his success didn’t come until late in the game.
Lattimore gave up only two catches on the first five targets against him for 39 yards. One of those came on a curl Jones cut inside for a gain of 16 while Ryan climbed the pocket to avoid a pass rush. The other was a well-timed back-shoulder throw up the left sideline for a gain of 23. Neither play was a bad beat.
The cornerback got the better of Jones by breaking up a pair of out routes and again on a go route up the sideline when the wide receiver fell to the ground. Lattimore also drew a holding penalty on a screen pass to Jones.
But then Lattimore finally got beat on an out-and-up route for a gain of 44 yards. Lattimore provided coverage, but it’s not the kind of play he typically surrenders. He then stopped a Jones curl route shy of the end zone for a gain of 5 later in the drive. The Saints eventually forced Atlanta to turn the ball over on downs.
The game was bigger than one individual matchup. Jones is the only receiver this season who has shown the ability to get his feet out of the mud against Lattimore. There’s no concern there. The bigger narrative is that the defense proved Sunday it cannot only survive, but it can still thrive without two of its more important defensive starters.
That bodes well for this team as it now prepares to go into the playoffs. Now, the offense just needs to figure out how to move the ball on third down and this team will be good to go.
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