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Will Marshon Lattimore fare better in 2nd chance vs Julio Jones?

Joe Marino

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Dec 17, 2017; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore (23) reacts after breaking up a pass to New York Jets wide receiver Robby Anderson (11) during the second half at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints defeated the Jets 31-19. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Already selected to the Pro Bowl and firmly in the running for Defensive Rookie of the Year, New Orleans Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore has been a sensation as a rookie. While there were concerns over Lattimore’s medicals that pushed him just outside the top 10 selections in the 2017 NFL Draft, his physical attributes and college game film were blue-chip quality. Performing like a true No. 1 lockdown corner, Lattimore has filled a major role on a much-improved Saint defensive unit.

Being a No. 1 corner in the NFC South is no small task. Matching up with Julio Jones (6-3, 220), Mike Evans (6-5, 231) and Devin Funchess (6-4, 225) in nearly 40 percent of contests is a tall order–literally. In a game with major implications for the ultimate winner of the NFC South, Lattimore faces Jones for the second time this season on Sunday.

Round one of Jones-Lattimore is scored in favor of Jones. The Falcons were victorious over the Saints 20-17 in early December. According to Pro Football Focus, Jones was targeted five times against Lattimore’s coverage, resulting in three catches for 73 yards with 38 of those coming after the catch. Lattimore did have an interception and was called for defensive holding twice while Jones had one drop.

Let’s examine why Jones got the better of Lattimore in the first game and what Lattimore must do better on Sunday.

When studying Jones’ reps against Lattimore, it quickly became clear that Atlanta wanted to isolate the matchup in space and give Jones a chance to make plays on the football. Given Jones’ size, dynamic skill set and ability to win at the catch point, it was a wise strategy for the Falcons in how they tested Lattimore in his first exposure to Jones.

On this rep, Jones takes a hard outside release against Lattimore and Jones wins the rep immediately because Lattimore’s eye discipline was so poor. Caught peeking into the backfield, which causes him to lose leverage in his transition, Lattimore allows a clean release. Working to the wide side of the field, Jones has a ton of space to work with and Matt Ryan does a good job of throwing it up and trusting Jones to position himself for the ball.

Lattimore’s poor technique from the outset robs him of the chance to pin the route closer to the sideline. Because he’s in a state of recovery, Lattimore is focused more on remaining in-phase with Jones than locating the football. Since this is man coverage, Lattimore’s primary focus should have been mirroring Jones, getting his hands more involved in the contact window, and squeezing the route to the sideline — not looking into the backfield. If that happened, Lattimore would have been more aware of Jones breaking off his route and put himself in a more favorable position to compete for the ball at the catch point.

When covering Jones, one false step is all he needs to separate and rip off a big gain. That’s exactly what happens to Lattimore on this rep. Lattimore opens his hips outside and Jones immediately crosses his face on the slant pattern. Attempting to recover, Lattimore cannot catch up to Jones’ burst to the football; it leads to a big gain on a third and six. Clean technique is required to not get burned by Jones.

Jones is among the elite offensive playmakers in the game — he puts considerable stress on his opponents to play with precise technique and anticipate his breaks. On this rep, Lattimore is a split-second late to drive on Jones to close down the distance and break on the ball. When Ryan and Jones are in this type of sync and rhythm, it’s near impossible to stop. Lattimore will have to be sharp with his pattern matching, anticipation and angles to slow down Jones on Sunday.

In Lattimore’s best rep against Jones, he came down with an interception. On this play, Lattimore is patient, balanced and physical in the contact window to crowd Jones early and not allow him to cross his face on the slant route. This is the type of physicality, balance and competitive toughness required to win reps against Jones. While the ball probably should not have been thrown, it was a reward for how Lattimore competed on the play.

Lattimore is one of the few cornerbacks who is physically gifted and talented enough to have a chance in shutting down Jones. Facing Jones is challenging enough, but it was also Lattimore’s first game back after missing two games on account of an ankle injury. Despite having recovered from the ankle injury, Lattimore was battling sickness throughout the contest and was seen several times leaving the game for oxygen. Although Lattimore denied it, teammate Ken Crawley said he witnessed him coughing up blood.

A fully healthy Lattimore will go a long way in a better showing against Jones in round two, but his success will ultimately come down to playing with precise technique, astute instincts and competitive physicality.

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Marino began his career as the Assistant Editor for USA Today Digital Properties Draft Sites Network in 2011. A member of the FWAA, Marino writes about the NFL, College Football and NFL Draft for FanRag Sports.

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