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Saints need Marshon Lattimore to keep surging against rival Mike Evans

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METAIRIE, La. -- Marshon Lattimore's shutdown performance against wide receiver Amari Cooper on Sunday night was exactly what the New Orleans Saints needed.

That’s how you win a game by the score of 12-10 against the undefeated Dallas Cowboys when you don’t have your star quarterback in the lineup.

And while it’s probably unfair to demand that kind of perfection from the cornerback every week, the Saints will need a lot more of it -- even when Drew Brees returns -- if they want to deliver on their Super Bowl aspirations.

Especially this Sunday against Lattimore’s biggest rival, Mike Evans, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"I have to be locked in every play," Lattimore said several times this week, while admitting he got caught "sleeping out there" during a couple of big plays earlier this season.

The 11th overall pick in the 2017 draft said that is part of the maturity process for him in Year 3 and he's "just trying to be the player I’m trying to become as far as All-Pro, Hall of Fame type of player."

"It was just really a mental thing. They’re not gonna go after me every play, so it’s really on me to stay locked in. ... That’s how I was doing this past game," said Lattimore, who added that Saints secondary coach and former longtime NFL cornerback Aaron Glenn hammered that message home to him last week. “Instead of just being locked in three quarters, I was locked in four quarters."

Lattimore’s teammates certainly noticed the change, including fellow corner Justin Hardee Sr.

“I believe that’s something we can expect from him every week. I’d put my money on it,” said Hardee, who added that he and Lattimore were texting each other last week and vowing to play better. “He’s locked in all the way, man. I know he was a little down with the first few weeks not going the way that [he wanted]. And we just gotta be positive.”

Lattimore, 23, has continued to be a very good cornerback for the Saints over the past two seasons. The 6-foot, 192-pounder has a rare combination of speed and physicality that makes him a great matchup against most any type of No. 1 receiver.

But he has battled more inconsistency after his breakout rookie year in 2017, which earned him the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award and a Pro Bowl selection. Lattimore also admitted last season that he wasn’t approaching practice with the same intensity as he approached games -- and he noticed some of those bad habits carrying over onto the field.

And he had perhaps his worst career performance in Week 1 last season against Evans when they last met inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Evans caught four passes for 115 yards while being covered directly by Lattimore, including a 50-yard touchdown, in the Buccaneers’ surprising 48-40 victory.

Lattimore has fared much better in their other three matchups, including a shut-down performance in their first-ever meeting in 2017, when Evans infamously wound up running across the field and shoving Lattimore in the back while Lattimore was arguing with quarterback Jameis Winston on the sideline. Evans was suspended for the next week and admitted his shove was “childish” and “bulls---.”

Lattimore insisted this week that his fifth matchup against Evans is “nothing special” and “just the next player I gotta play against.”

But Lattimore admitted last season that he can’t help but think about the 2017 incident, “just being a man.”

More than anything, Lattimore and the Saints’ entire defense need to think about slowing down Tampa Bay’s dynamic duo of receivers, Chris Godwin and Evans, who have four touchdowns apiece and both rank in the top six in the NFL in receiving yards (386 for Godwin, 368 for Evans).

As Lattimore suggested, he has been mostly good this year while routinely matching up against the opponents’ top receiver, with a couple of blips in every game over the first three weeks.

He held the Houston Texans’ DeAndre Hopkins to three catches for 13 yards and a touchdown through 59 minutes in Week 1 when they were matched up against each other. Then he allowed a 38-yarder to Hopkins on a double move during Houston's last-minute touchdown drive.

“I feel like I played great, but I guess it wasn’t to expectations, everybody talking about, ‘He won’ or whatever,” Lattimore said. “I didn’t think he did. A No. 1 receiver with 51 yards? I didn’t think it was a win on his part. But it is what it is.”

Then in Week 2, Lattimore allowed Los Angeles Rams receiver Brandin Cooks to get behind him for a 57-yard catch, and he gave up a 2-yard TD catch to Cooks. He was also guarding Rams receiver Cooper Kupp in a rare appearance in the slot when Kupp turned a 9-yard catch into a 66-yard gain. Lattimore was the first of four Saints defensive backs to miss a tackle on that play when Kupp stiff-armed him around midfield.

Some of those big plays appeared to involve zone coverage, so it’s hard to tell if free safety Marcus Williams should have bailed Lattimore out on any of them. But as a result, NFL Next Gen Stats data had Lattimore credited with allowing a NFL-high 319 yards through the first three weeks when he was the nearest defender in coverage.

That’s why Lattimore’s performance against Cooper was so emphatic. Cooper caught just four passes for 39 yards on eight targets with Lattimore in coverage. Lattimore broke up two of the passes and drew an offensive pass interference call.

“It was really good,” Saints coach Sean Payton said when asked if it was Lattimore’s best performance of the year. “He's played well, so I don't know about comparing it to the other games. But he did a great job against a good player.”

Lattimore said it was "cool" but that he "can't really get too happy about one win and one matchup."

"At corner, it's ups and downs and it's a long season," Lattimore said. "We're still in the grind. It's Week 5 coming up."