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16 Nov 2017

Film Room: Marshon Lattimore

by Derrik Klassen

The NFL is experiencing a renaissance of young cornerback talent. In 2016, Jalen Ramsey brought a physical, no-BS attitude to a Jaguars defense that needed a jump-start. James Bradberry, a second-round pick that same year, has become a cornerstone of the Panthers secondary. A year prior, Marcus Peters exploded with eight interceptions as rookie for the Chiefs, on pace to be one of the best ballhawks of this era. Before that, the 2013 class produced Desmond Trufant, Xavier Rhodes, and Darius Slay, all of whom are shutdown cornerbacks barely into their second contracts.

Marshon Lattimore's immediate impact in New Orleans outshines them all.

Whereas most cornerbacks need a year or two to find their bearings, Lattimore already looks like he has been playing for a while. His technique, understanding, and savvy are as good as any at the position right now. Strip the nameplate off of his jersey and you could convince anyone that No. 23 on the Saints was a veteran All-Pro the way he has played this season.

Adjusting to the speed and multiplicity of the NFL has been a non-issue for Lattimore.

Lattimore is playing a flat zone in a Cover-2 look on this fourth-and-5 play. Versus the flat-7 combination Detroit plans to run, Lattimore is responsible for squatting between the two routes and remaining in position to play them both.

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As Matthew Stafford turns to the left side of the formation, Lattimore begins to trail upward. He wants to first take away the touchdown throw, as he should. However, Lattimore soon realizes Stafford is not throwing the 7-route, he is throwing the flat. Lattimore is able to gather himself without any wasted motion, square up to the tight end who caught the ball, and chop him down before he can cross the goal line.

Lattimore is far more than a Cover-2 cornerback, though. Lattimore can play any technique and assignment, but it is always best to discuss from the ground up, so to speak. It is just as fascinating to watch Lattimore play deep zones.

The Saints are in three-deep look versus the Green Bay Packers. The Packers plan on running Yankee, a hard play-fake concept with two key routes: a deep crosser and a deep post. Hitting the deep post is the goal of the play.

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Lattimore opens the play with a few quick steps as he moves back to his deep third. As the play begins to unfold, Lattimore realizes the wide receiver to his side is crossing the field and there is no other immediate threat. He feels out the route combination and floats deep up the field to help cover the post. Brett Hundley's throw hangs in the air long enough for Lattimore to get under it and nearly intercept it. He did not come down with the ball, but he ensured that Jordy Nelson did not either. Interception or not, Lattimore again flashed the awareness and athleticism to help out his teammates.

Finally, Lattimore is a nifty press-man cornerback. He may not possess the long arms and brutish strength of a Jalen Ramsey-type, but he does not need to. Lattimore wins in press with agile feet and smooth hips, coupled with just enough physical ability to slow and control receivers off of the line.

New Orleans played press-man often versus the Detroit Lions in Week 6. With how much better New Orleans' pass-rushers were than Detroit's offensive line, it made sense to play aggressive coverage. Lattimore's ability to essentially take away one receiver also made it easy for defensive coordinator Dennis Allen to feel comfortable going to press-man.

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Marvin Jones had the misfortune of being matched up with Lattimore on this play. Off the snap, Jones releases out and up. Jones then resets after a couple steps, instead shooting inside for a slant route. Lattimore jabs into Jones' chest as he tries to make his inside cut, negating any speed Jones could generate coming out of his quick break on the slant route. Lattimore is then able to turn himself inside and follow Jones with ease. Stafford tries to fit the pass in despite the tight coverage, but Lattimore leaps around and swipes at the catch point, takinga clean chance at the ball away from Jones.

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This time it is T.J. Jones who has to deal with Lattimore. T.J. Jones begins with an outside vertical release, no different than Marvin Jones did on the previous play. However, T.J. Jones follows through on his vertical route. Lattimore is able to recognize the commitment to the route and carry the receiver up the field. From the moment Lattimore puts a hand on the receiver, he is able to win inside positioning. Lattimore then forces the receiver to the boundary, giving only himself a chance at the ball. Once again, Stafford tested Lattimore, but the ball was left too far inside and down the field for even Lattimore to get to.

For all the praise Lattimore deserves, the Saints' jump from 30th in pass defense DVOA last season to fourth through 10 games in this season could not possibly be solely about the addition of one rookie cornerback. It was not until the Jaguars added a pass rush and a good No. 2 cornerback that Ramsey's impact was truly meaningful. The opposite can be said of the Chiefs with Peters and the Cardinals with Peterson; those defenses have both taken a step back because their shutdown cornerbacks do not have as much help. It takes a village to play defense.

Secondary coach Aaron Glenn has done a fantastic job with the young talent in New Orleans. Glenn joined the Saints in 2016. During that season, Glenn was working with second-year cornerback P.J. Williams, undrafted rookie cornerback Ken Crawley, and rookie safety Vonn Bell. The Saints then drafted Lattimore in the first round and safety Marcus Williams in the second round of the 2017 draft. All five players are, at the very least, adequate at their positions, and help maintain sound coverage structure on a regular basis.

Crawley being a quality No. 2 across from Lattimore is valuable. He is good enough to allow Allen to feel good about playing one-on-one coverages. Crawley, like Lattimore, is fundamentally sound with just enough physicality to be aggressive. Granted, Crawley does not have Lattimore's athletic tools, but that is in part negated by the scheme because Lattimore tends to be the key matchup cornerback. Through 10 games this season, based on Sports Info Solutions charting, Crawley is eighth in yards per target allowed among cornerbacks with at least 25 targets. His coverage success rate ranks seventh among that same group (subscription required.)

Williams and Bell have emerged as an electric young safety duo. Their names together also sound like an upstart law firm, but we will leave their post-football endeavors up to them. Williams, the free safety, has already shown excellent range and fluidity in the back end. He is still developing and learning how to properly pick up vertical routes in match coverage, but he has all the tools necessary to be a game-changing free safety. As proven by Seattle's Earl Thomas over the past half-decade, a high-end free safety can be critical to defensive success. Bell, on the other hand, plays strong safety. In rob and flat coverages, Bell has the confidence and awareness to regularly cut off passing lanes. Even in man and match coverages, Bell can hold his own, allowing for schematic flexibility.

Making life easy on the young secondary is a surprisingly effective pass rush. It is no secret that Cameron Jordan can get to the quarterback, but he is no longer alone in his crusade. Alex Okafor, a cheap free-agent signing, has quietly played well this season. His 4.5 sacks rank second on the team, trailing only Jordan's 7.0. David Onyemata, Hau'oli Kikaha, Sheldon Rankins, and Trey Hendrickson have done their part, as well. Collectively, the Saints rank 16th in pressure rate (subscription required) and are tied for 10th in sacks. Neither of those placements are jaw-dropping, but it is improvement from previous seasons and has aided a young group of defensive backs.

The best argument against the Saints' defensive revival is that they have not been faced with many high-caliber passing offenses since Week 2. They faced the Panthers in Week 3, but the Panthers are a streaky passing offense, and the Saints were without Lattimore. Since then, the Lions, the Buccaneers, and the Hundley-led Packers have been the Saints' toughest competition. While the Lions and Bucs, in particular, are not slouches, those are not dominant passing offenses that the Saints have dismantled.

Moving forward, the Saints will be truly tested. Games against the Redskins, Rams, and Panthers are still left on the schedule, as are both division games versus the Falcons. All of those teams are better than anyone the Saints have played thus far, assuming the Panthers maintain the rhythm they now seem to have.

The Saints defense has what it takes to wear down the better passing attacks in the league. They may be young on the back end, but their talent and versatility has shone through thus far; there is little reason to believe that will suddenly fall apart. It is now up to them to prove their legitimacy versus the best offenses the league has to offer.

Posted by: Derrik Klassen on 16 Nov 2017

3 comments, Last at 19 Nov 2017, 2:34am by ClavisRa

Comments

1
by Joseph :: Thu, 11/16/2017 - 4:55pm

One thing to note about the last 3 paragraphs: they aren't just holding their own, they have shut down the passing games of these teams (starting since week 3). Also, while the Saints offense has been ruthlessly efficient as a whole, Brees hasn't really gone crazy as in years past--prob. b/c of Snead being out for several games and the Cooks trade. It sounds crazy to say that the defense is winning games for the Saints, but it's true. During their 7 game win streak, the only team to put points up was the Lions--but remember, the Saints' D scored 3 times that game, and two of the Lions TD's were on a punt return and a "pick-6" by the D-line.
I'm a Saints' fan, and I'm in shock that their D is playing this good. If their offense plays regularly plays like they did last week in Buffalo, they have a shot to do something special.

2
by theslothook :: Thu, 11/16/2017 - 5:05pm

I'm not sure which story surprises me more, the Saints D or Goff and the Rams Offense.

3
by ClavisRa :: Sun, 11/19/2017 - 2:34am

I'd be surprised if the Saints defense is better than the Pats defense, the Saints being nowhere near as good as they're being represented, and the Pats nowhere near as bad.

Lattimore, however, is the real deal.