Elite flashes, brutal lows, big plays created, and big plays given up. Over the last few years, we’ve seen it all from Marshon Lattimore.
He’s easily one of the most talented defensive backs in the league and has been since 2017, when he won Defensive Rookie of the Year. His combination of elite speed, agility and ball skills make him a nightmare to get open against in man coverage when he’s locked in and playing well.
But a general inconsistency when it comes to the fifth-year corner’s game-to-game performance, whether it’s due to a lack of focus, gambles in coverage or just the variance of the position, makes it hard to always appreciate his talent.
And that inconsistency has never been better displayed than in this season, where he’s basically been an elite corner for half of the year and a bad one for the other half.
In Weeks 1-7, Lattimore led the league by a wide margin in pass breakups with 11 (according to PFF), while only allowing a 45% catch rate when targeted in coverage (T-8th best among qualifying corners). It was incredible to see the work he was doing on elite receivers while having a cast on his hand for most of that time period.
In Weeks 8-13, however, he not only came back down to Earth. He crashed down.
In that time span, he gave up a league-leading 401 receiving yards on a 71.1% catch rate when targeted, five TDs (most) and 162 yards after the catch (third-most).
So overall on the season so far, this has balanced out to where he is still leading the league in PBUs (14) and has two picks, but also is allowing the second most yards (738) and the second-most TDs (7) on 17.6 yards per reception allowed (T-highest).
Part of this quandary is just the challenge of playing corner in an offensive league. They can hardly touch receivers anymore, and anything less than perfect coverage while turning your head just in time when the ball is thrown your way deep will likely result in a chunk defensive pass interference call.
So naturally, you’re going to give up some big plays when the cards are stacked against you.
Even Trevon Diggs, the rookie corner everyone is raving about due to his league-leading nine interceptions, has also given up by far the most yards in the league when targeted (826).
But the thing with Lattimore is that he plays such an aggressive style of coverage that it makes him a bit susceptible to the big play. He doesn’t want to give up anything, short or long, and that often makes it tough to recover when someone gets a step on him.
Plus, New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen puts a ton on Marshon’s shoulders when it comes to their defensive scheme. They run Cover 3 with a safety shaded to the opposite side of Lattimore, or they’ll often leave him on an island with a double on a receiver opposite of him.
What this does is it results in him being in a ton of one-on-one matchups throughout the season, and offenses have shown they’re just not afraid to throw at him. He’s been targeted 71 times this year, which is the 11th-most among corners.
Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. But the question is – is he good enough to warrant this type of treatment?
Should he be treated as a corner who you can base your entire defense around and trust to lock up number one receivers, or should he just be treated like any other corner and get occasional safety help?
It likely depends on the matchup on a week-to-week basis, but it’s just a tough position for the Saints because they paid this guy to be a top-flight corner. And while he definitely is capable of being that any given week, that’s also just a terribly difficult level of play for a corner to sustain in 2021.
Nonetheless, Marshon is going to be a Saint for a long time based on his current contract, and it’s clear the Saints view him as an elite level defensive back.
And while they definitely have reason to believe that, it’s also fair to expect more from him moving forward.
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