Saints defense counting on Marshon Lattimore to hold his own vs. Julio Jones
Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones was probably the toughest matchup last year during New Orleans Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore's rookie season.
In Week 14, Jones had five catches for 98 yards, and in Week 16, he had seven catches for 149 yards. Most of that production came against Lattimore, who had a sensational rookie season, and while those are impressive numbers for a receiver, Lattimore won his share of plays. He had two interceptions and five passes defensed in the two games, though Lattimore's "butt pick" in Week 16 came on a pass intended for Marvin Hall.
Jones' production in those two games came on 22 targets, and his catch rate of 55 percent was lower than his career mark of 63 percent and 66 percent in his previous 11 matchups against the Saints.
A two-time All-Pro and five-time Pro Bowler, Jones is the kind of players about which teams frequently use a cliche. You can't stop him. You just have to hope to contain him.
"He can do everything, so I got to be on my game," Lattimore said. "That's basically it. There's no special way to put anything."
Lattimore did well to contain Jones last year, and when the Saints face the Falcons on Sunday (Sept. 23) in Atlanta, New Orleans will hope its second-year cornerback can limit the big-body receiver.
"We need (Lattimore) at his top part of his game because he's going against one of the best, so we need him at his best," Saints safety Kurt Coleman said of the matchup.
Although Lattimore will likely follow Jones around the field, it's not exactly a one-on-one matchup. In order to limit a player like Jones, who's exceeded 1,400 receiving yards each of the past four seasons, the Saints know they must pressure Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. Defenses often talk about the complementary nature of the pass rush and the coverage, and this game is a prime example of both groups needing to play well.
Saints coach Sean Payton and All-Pro defensive end Cameron Jordan both talked about the importance of complementary defense when it comes to defending Jones, with Jordan noting that Ryan likes to throw the ball quickly, so good coverage on Jones will make things easier for the pass rushers.
"If he's able to stick with Julio and buy us a little more time, it's got to be on us to harass Matt Ryan," Jordan said of Lattimore.
Although the Lattimore and Jones battle is a reprise from last year, the other matchups in the passing game are a bit different. The Saints added Coleman at strong safety and Patrick Robinson to play the nickel while the Falcons drafted receiver Calvin Ridley in the first round this year, adding him to the group led by Jones and Mohamed Sanu. In Atlanta's Week 2 win over the Carolina Panthers, Ridley had four catches for 64 yards and a touchdown.
So, even if Lattimore defends Jones well, the rest of the Saints secondary has to play well to limit a potentially potent Atlanta passing game. And if Lattimore does play well, it would give the Saints more options with what to do on defense.
"Obviously, (Lattimore) has the ability to max out and handle any type of wide receiver in this league, especially when he's performing at his best, which allows us to do a lot of different things with blitzing, coverages and all that," Coleman said.
Robinson has some recent experience on a defense that locked down Jones from playing for the Philadelphia Eagles last year. When the Eagles played the Falcons in the divisional round of the playoffs last year, Jones had nine catches for 101 yards, but four catches and 46 of those yards didn't come until the final drive.
"We just played our defense, to be honest," Robinson said of that game with the Eagles. "A lot of times, if you just play your coverage and play within the scheme the way it's supposed to be, a lot of times you'll have success."
Having a cornerback with one-on-one skills like Lattimore, though, makes it so the Saints don't have to make so many adjustments within the defensive scheme to focus on Jones. Meanwhile, Coleman said the thing Lattimore does well against Jones is disrupt him with press coverage at the line of scrimmage, which alters the timing of Atlanta's plays.
"If you're able to disrupt (Ryan's) timing, he's got to hold the ball for an extra count," Coleman said. "If you give the D-line an extra count, you're expecting them to get home."
Even though Lattimore did an admirable job covering Jones last year, he offered a ton of respect for his upcoming opponent when discussing the pivotal matchup.
"He's great, so I got to come out and be great," Lattimore said. "I got to go at him. There's nothing to it other than that. Just compete. Go out there and compete, and try to win the battle."
By Josh Katzenstein firstname.lastname@example.org
NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune