The rookie who's helped turn around the Saints defense

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CHARLOTTE – After three straight 7-9 seasons and an 0-2 start in 2017, many were ready to bury the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era in New Orleans. 

Then the Saints won in Charlotte, sparking an eight-game win streak. 

It's not a coincidence the turnaround started when the Saints carved out a bigger role for running back Alvin Kamara. The rookie phenom scored a touchdown in that first win over the Panthers, which was the last time his touches didn't hit double digits. But the Saints needed more than just a resurgent run game to resurrect into a legit contender. 

Enter cornerback Marshon Lattimore. 

"(He's) a very talented football player. Plays with a lot of juice," quarterback Cam Newton said of Lattimore, who at 21 is the youngest ever player to make the Pro Bowl. "There's not much you can say bad about him. A guy who when healthy is probably a top-tier cornerback in this league." 

Therein lies Lattimore's biggest problem. A hamstring issue limited him to one full season at Ohio State. But he was so good in 2016, the Saints made him the top corner off the board this spring when they drafted him 11th overall. 

Still, injuries interrupted his first season as a pro. A concussion kept him out of the Saints' first win over the Panthers; then he missed the second while recovering from an ankle injury suffered early in a Week 11 win against Washington. 

But Lattimore did enough in the 12 games when he was fully healthy to make him a near shoo-in for Defensive Rookie of the Year. 

He was named Defensive Rookie of the Week four times and Defensive Rookie of the Month twice. He tied for 5th with five interceptions. He allowed only two receptions of 25-plus yards. He never allowed a touchdown to a receiver in coverage. And according to Pro Football Focus, of the 12 corners to post similar shutouts this season, Lattimore's 451 snaps in coverage were the second-most.

"He's a guy that I think is going to become a very good corner in this league," head coach Ron Rivera said, "and people are going to talk about him and how he's going to help them change things they try to do."

Lattimore isn't the sole reason for the Saints' much-improved defense, but he's the biggest factor in a secondary that went from worst in the league to 15th against the pass this season. Because he's tremendously skilled in man-to-man coverage, the Saints have Lattimore shadow No. 1 wideouts. That allows the rest of the unit to focus its attention elsewhere. 

"They're more risk-taking on the back end," wideout Russell Shepard said. "He's going to pressure; he's going to play man-to-man. You don't see a lot of corners, especially rookie corners, playing press man-to-man on third downs. So that says a lot about their trust in him and says a lot about his game."

Because the Saints didn't need Lattimore to pull off a regular-season sweep, his addition to matchup No. 3 isn't great news for the Panthers. Especially for an offense that's limped into the postseason. That puts a good amount of pressure on Devin Funchess, who's expected to be shadowed by Lattimore. But here's another way to look at it: This sure is a great opportunity for Funchess to prove his worth as a No. 1 wide receiver. 

"(Lattimore's) glorified, hellified, whatever thing you want to say. He's an athlete; he's a playmaker," Funchess said. "Hopefully he gets through those injuries and we have a good time on Sunday."

View photos from the week of practice leading up to the Panthers' wild card playoff game against the Saints.

After three straight 7-9 seasons and an 0-2 start in 2017, many were ready to bury the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era in New Orleans. 

Then the Saints won in Charlotte, sparkling an eight-game win streak. 

It's not a coincidence the turnaround started when the Saints carved out a bigger role for running back Alvin Kamara. The rookie phenom scored a touchdown in that first win over the Panthers, which was the last time his touches didn't hit double digits. But the Saints needed more than just a resurgent run game to resurrect into a legit contender. 

Enter cornerback Marshon Lattimore. 

"(He's) a very talented football player. Plays with a lot of juice," quarterback Cam Newton said of Lattimore, who at 21 is the youngest ever player to make the Pro Bowl. "There's not much you can say bad about him. A guy who when healthy is probably a top-tier cornerback in this league." 

Therein lies Lattimore's biggest problem. A hamstring issue limited him to one full season at Ohio State. But he was so good in 2016, the Saints made him the top corner off the board this spring when they drafted him 11th overall. 

Still, injuries interrupted his first season as a pro. A concussion kept him out of the Saints' first win over the Panthers with a concussion; then he missed the second while recovering from an ankle injury suffered early in a Week 11 win against Washington. 

But Lattimore did enough in the 12 games when he was fully healthy to make him a near shoe-in for Defensive Rookie of the Year. 

He was named Defensive Rookie of the Week four times and Defensive Rookie of the Month twice. He tied for 5th with five interceptions. He allowed only two receptions of 25-plus yards. He never allowed a touchdown to a receiver in coverage. And according to Pro Football Focus, of the 12 corners to post similar shutouts this season, Lattimore's 451 snaps in coverage were the second-most.

"He's a guy that I think is going to become a very good corner in this league," head coach Ron Rivera said, "and people are going to talk about him and how he's going to help them change things they try to do."

Lattimore isn't the sole reason for the Saints' much-improved defense, but he's the biggest factor in a secondary that went from worst in the league to 15th against the pass this season. Because he's tremendously skilled in man-to-man coverage, the Saints have Lattimore shadow No. 1 wideouts. That allows the rest of the unit to focus its attention elsewhere. 

"They're more risk-taking on the back end," wideout Russell Shepard said. "He's going to pressure; he's going to play man-to-man. You don't see a lot of corners, especially rookie corners, playing press man-to-man on third downs. So that says a lot about their trust in him and says a lot about his game."

Because the Saints didn't need Lattimore to pull off a regular-season sweep, his addition to matchup No. 3 isn't great news for the Panthers. Especially for an offense that's limped into the postseason. That puts a good amount of pressure on Devin Funchess, who's expected to be shadowed by Lattimore. But here's another way to look at it: This sure is a great opportunity for Funchess to prove his worth as a No. 1 wide receiver. 

"(Lattimore's) glorified, hellified, whatever thing you want to say. He's an athlete; he's a playmaker," Funchess said. "Hopefully he gets through those injuries and we have a good time on Sunday."

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