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Beyond the brawl: Mike Evans-Marshon Lattimore is must-see TV

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TAMPA, Fla. -- It was a shove seen all across the league last season, when Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans ran and pushed New Orleans Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore to the ground.

But it did more than start a brawl on the Bucs' sideline in what was an ugly Week 9 contest -- it ignited what's becoming one of the top wide receiver-cornerback matchups in the NFL, and it'll be on full display at 1 p.m. Sunday (Fox) when the Bucs face the Saints in New Orleans.

"I think it is [one of the top matchups] right now," said Bucs coach Dirk Koetter. "I don't think we have to wait -- I think it will be this Sunday."

The 6-foot-5, 231-pound Evans, has typically been a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses, particularly in the red zone and on the perimeter. His 32 touchdown catches since 2014 are tied for seventh-most in the league.

"I think he's got a great radius. I think he's got really good hands," said Saints coach Sean Payton. "He's strong, he's long and he's a tough out. He's a very, very skilled player."

Payton believes Evans is most dangerous, however, on explosive plays down the field. His 245 first downs since 2014 are fourth-most in the league behind Antonio Brown, Julio Jones and DeAndre Hopkins.

"When the ball gets down the field 12 yards or more, 10 yards or more [he's most effective]" Payton said. "He's had a great camp. You [can] tell he's in shape. Just the size and the skill set with regards to what he's doing and how he's running routes makes it difficult."

That's where Lattimore, who was last season's NFL Rookie Defensive Player of the Year, comes in. At 6-foot and 192 pounds, he has shown the right combination of size, speed and athleticism to press guys like Evans at the line of scrimmage and pluck balls away.

"He's almost a perfect match for this division because he's got the size to go up against Mike and to go up against Julio -- the big receivers ..." Koetter said. "He had a couple picks last year where you're used to being able to throw to certain spots and a lot of corners won't make plays on the ball, but he showed he'll make plays on the ball, as well."

According to Pro Football Focus, Lattimore had a playmaker rate of 22.1 percent (percentage of targets either defensed or intercepted) and recorded at least one pass breakup or interception in every game in which he was targeted at least four times in coverage.

Even on the 50-50 grabs and with Evans having a good 5 inches on him, Lattimore is capable of making plays on the ball because his 38.5-inch vertical is actually higher.

Payton expects a lot of back and forth.

"You have two great players competing at a high level," Payton said. "The talent skill set is such that there's gonna be completions, there's gonna be [great] coverage, [too]."

Evans is 'a guy that we feed off of'

Fully appreciating the matchup of Evans versus Lattimore requires a look back at their respective teams before their arrivals.

The Bucs weren't known as a vertical passing team before Evans was selected seventh overall in the 2014 draft. From 2011 to 2013, the Bucs averaged 217.8 passing yards per game, 22nd in the league.

In the three seasons Evans and quarterback Jameis Winston have been together under Koetter, from 2015-17, the Bucs' offense has averaged 253 passing yards per game -- a top-10 ranking -- and last season, they finished fourth in passing yards, averaging 272.9 yards.

In 2017, Evans finished with his fourth consecutive 1,000-yard season, becoming just the third player in NFL history to achieve that milestone in each of his first four seasons. He's now just two away (32) from tying the franchise record of 34 in touchdown catches.

"For his size, he has legitimate quickness and he's got range, he's competitive, he uses his hands well," Bucs offensive coordinator Todd Monken said. "He's a very confident guy. You've just gotta put it in his radius to give him a chance."

He scored two touchdowns against Richard Sherman and the Seattle Seahawks in 2016. He won an ESPY for "Best Play" with his one-handed grab against the Atlanta Falcons.

"He's a guy that we feed off of -- his energy, his play-making ability -- I was watching his high school film the other day and it's something he's always been able to do," said Fitzpatrick. "To look at him at the line of scrimmage and know that he's on my team -- that's a fun feeling for me."

Lattimore: 'We just had to turn our swag up'

Lattimore was drafted specifically to combat the big-bodied targets in the NFC South.

"When we picked at 11, I don't know that we were for certain that he would fall to 11, but I do know that when we're looking at corners, one of the things that you have to consider are the matchups each week," Payton said. "In our division, I feel like, all four teams, have size at the receiver position -- Mike Thomas is big, and Mike Evans and Julio ... even at Carolina before their young receiver [Kelvin Benjamin] was traded. ... I think that we have some of the better receivers in the division ..."

In the three years prior to Lattimore's arrival in New Orleans, the Saints' defense was giving up, on average, 269.4 passing yards per game, the most in the NFL. Last season, the unit improved to 15th in the league, giving up 224.8 yards per game.

"He's competitive, he's someone who has confidence that he can run. He's from a winning culture. He played at a very high level at Ohio State," Payton said. "I think the week-in and week-out consistency [from him] each week is something that's important as you're building a defense."

Second-round draft pick Marcus Williams and cornerback Ken Crawley played big roles in helping turn things around, but Lattimore led the way. He notched five interceptions -- third among cornerbacks in the league -- and recorded a pick-six against Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. He also had 10 pass breakups.

"I feel like we had the guys, we just had to turn our swag up a little bit," said Lattimore, who encouraged teammates to celebrate after big plays. "I was telling them, 'We have no type of swagger as a team, as a defense.' I tried to bring the young [energy]. I tried to bring the hype."

The Week 9 brawl

Evans insists he was only trying to defend Winston when he came flying at Lattimore and delivered the third-quarter hit.

It had been a frustrating day for the Bucs at the Superdome. They were down 30-3, Winston had left the game because of an injury. And Evans was held to one catch for 13 yards for the whole game on five targets.

Evans said his actions were "childish," that it was a "bulls--- move."

"I apologized," Evans said.

But even 10 months later, Lattimore still doesn't like talking about that scuffle.

"I don't need to do any talking about it. I'm just gonna go out there and play," Lattimore said, emphasizing that Evans isn't his only focus, with Jones, Josh Gordon and Odell Beckham Jr. all on the calendar.

"I'm trying to be the best against anybody," Lattimore said. "If you want to be the best, you gotta play the best and do good against the best. So just measuring myself against them, of course. If they're the best receivers in the league, and I'm shutting 'em down, that has to say something about my game ..."

Though Lattimore and the Saints' secondary had the edge in Week 9 last season, the Bucs pulled the upset in Week 17 with a last-second, 31-24 win. Evans redeemed himself with five catches for 55 yards. Lattimore gave up four catches for 77 yards.

There was zero extracurricular activity between Evans and Lattimore in that game, but Koetter and Payton had a rather spirited end-of-game handshake because Payton was still unhappy Koetter hadn't pulled Evans in Week 9 when there was no ejection from the officials.

Koetter said he would have had he seen it live (he was focusing on getting the next play in), and Payton denied there was any bad blood with Koetter when talking to ESPN at the Pro Bowl in February.

"I guess because of the things that transpired -- [my] suspension, our coaches going at [it], we played them the last game of the year -- so that's probably why [there's more salt to this matchup]; they played in the playoffs, so they probably had more things on their mind," Evans said. "We're just ready for the matchup.

"I look forward to all matchups, but in this case, he was the Rookie Defensive Player of the Year, a great player. He's gonna push me to the limit, and I'm gonna push him, as well."

"That's what the great ones do," said Bucs wide receiver Adam Humphries. "They look forward to the best competition they can get. They look forward to that challenge. I know Mike's excited to go against [Marshon], and I'm sure he's excited, as well. That's what competitors do -- they're excited to go against really talented people. It'll be fun to watch."

-- ESPN Saints reporter Mike Triplett contributed to this story.