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New Orleans Saints cornerback Ken Crawley (20) stops Carolina Panthers wide receiver Devin Funchess (17) short on fourth down in the second half of an NFL football game in New Orleans, La. Sunday, Dec. 3, 2017.

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON

The New Orleans Saints did miss having some players in the secondary against the Carolina Panthers.

Maybe the 31-21 win would have been even greater had cornerback Marshon Lattimore and safety Marcus Williams played. And maybe if Ken Crawley hadn’t been playing through an oblique injury, he would've broken up the Panthers' final touchdown pass instead of allowing a score.

But even with the absences and missed plays, the group performed well. It was one of the reasons the Saints pulled out a victory that put them in control of the NFC South.

Crawley had two plays he certainly would like to have back. One was on a third down during the opening drive when he and Sterling Moore were defending a stack formation and allowed a receiver to run relatively free for a 13-yard reception. Something about the identification of the play was off, and Crawley got caught up the field.

The other was the Panthers’ final touchdown. Crawley attempted to break up Cam Newton's pass to Devin Funchess and missed, allowing the receiver to run in for a 24-yard touchdown. In a closer game, perhaps the play looks worse, but New Orleans was up by 17 at that point, and the score had little impact on the game.

The cornerback was also one of the reasons the team won, stepping up with big plays in key moments.

One of those came when Crawley broke up a deep post route to Damiere Byrd in the second half to save a touchdown. Vonn Bell, who was playing free safety, was watching a pair of underneath routes, leaving Crawley alone on the outside. As the play approached the end zone, Crawley spotted the ball, turned and fully extended to knock the ball out of the air.

Crawley had another strong play when he pushed Funchess out of bounds before Funchess could complete a catch on an out route in the second quarter. He also broke up a go route to the receiver. But his most important moment might have come when he tackled Funchess 1 yard shy of the first down on a fourth-and-6 play with 11:22 remaining fourth quarter and the score 28-14.

The broken-up pass to Byrd was a good example of the growth the former undrafted rookie has made since last season. During his first season here, Crawley was often in phase with whoever he was covering but struggled when the ball was coming his way. Crawley wouldn’t trust his eyes or would panic as the ball was coming in, creating opportunities for receivers to make plays instead of finishing them himself.

That's no longer the case, and his growth in this area is a big reason for his current success.

While Lattimore has gotten most of the hype, Crawley’s rise this season is nearly as big of a reason for the turnaround on defense this season than anything. The second-year player has defended at least a dozen passes. Overall, Crawley has allowed 27 complete passes in 61 attempts thrown his way, totaling 317 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.

By way of comparison, in 2015, Delvin Breaux allowed 37 completions on 78 targets for 557 yards with 10 touchdowns and three interceptions. Lattimore has allowed 22 catches on 39 targets for 218 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions.

Crawley has pieced together a very strong season so far. It makes you wonder if we’d be seeing this breakout performance — or at least as early we did in the season — if P.J. Williams hadn’t missed a meeting while the Saints were in London and gotten benched against the Miami Dolphins. That chain of events, had it not occurred, might have led to a different reality.

Even with Marcus Williams and Lattimore out against the Panthers, the Saints didn’t take a drastically different approach to its coverage. There were still a lot of single-high looks used, with some two-safety shells mixed in, as usual.

The only major change was that Sterling Moore often covered the slot instead of Kenny Vaccaro since the Saints were down a man at safety. Moore did well in the role, allowing four catches on eight targets for 42 yards. He also had a key pass breakup late in the game when Carolina was threatening to close the lead.

P.J. Williams also did well for the second week in a row. If he gave anything up, it wasn’t immediately noticeable. He stuffed one reception behind the line of scrimmage and gave up another short catch. Overall, he continues to show progress, and there should be confidence that he can step in if a starter misses time again.

It wasn’t against a high-powered passing offense, but the Saints secondary showed it could rebound from a bad performance and overcome some injuries. Both of those are important steps as this team prepares for the final stretch and playoffs.

Follow Nick Underhill on Twitter, @nick_underhill.​