METAIRIE, La. — Marshon Lattimore has two interceptions in his rookie season—in Weeks 6 and 8, against the Lions and Bears, respectively—but the defining play of his NFL career so far is sandwiched between those two picks.
In Week 7 against Green Bay, the Saints standout corner was matched up against wide receiver Davante Adams in the second quarter. He showed man coverage but was disguising Cover-3, where he would take the defensive right side of the field in a Brett Hundley passing situation.
After the snap, Lattimore quickly identified that the Packers were trying for a home-run ball with Jordy Nelson, and he abandoned Adams to go play centerfield. He tracked the deep ball and broke up the pass to Nelson that, if completed, would have put Green Bay inside the New Orleans’ 15 yard-line.
Lattimore knows he can play man coverage. It’s the reason the Saints took him with the No. 11 overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft despite his injury history and only one real year of college football experience. But zone is something he’s still working on…at least until that play. That play showed him he can do it.
With a quarter of the season remaining, Lattimore is the frontrunner for Defensive Rookie of the Year for the 9–3 Saints. A win for him would be a rarity for his position. In the past 20 years, only two corners—Charles Woodson and Marcus Peters—have been named the top rookie defender.
“He’s playing hellified defense. He’s pretty much locking up everybody he’s going against,” safety Rafael Bush says. “We put a lot on his plate as far as going out there and matching up with these guys. For the most part we haven’t been giving him much help and he’s been holding his own. Once you get a corner like that, it makes it easier for your defense to not have to babysit a guy.”
There’s two reasons for Lattimore’s quick success in this league: 1. The Saints’ defensive backfield (nicknamed the D-Block) is full of youth, with Bush being the oldest at age 30, and 2. the locker room feels like home. Not only does he have fellow Buckeyes Vonn Bell and Michael Thomas with him, but he also has a pair of hometown guys in Glenville, Ohio, natives Ted Ginn Jr. and Justin Hardee. That trio in particular knows what it’s like to come from a place with little and have to claw and scratch in order to make a name for yourself.
And Lattimore’s play against the Packers proved to his teammates and coaches that he can do the hard stuff, just like he’s been doing all his life.
Glenville, Ohio is one of Cleveland’s most struggling neighborhoods. With fewer than 30,000 residents, the median household income is $22,067 with a poverty rate of 35%, four percentage points higher than that of Cleveland.
Lattimore knows both violence and poverty. He was 14 in 2010 when his cousin, Dayton, was shot and killed following an argument. His father served more than four years, off and on, in prison while Lattimore was growing up. He remembers when the gas was shut off at home and his family had to huddle around a space heater for warmth.
“One time I remember [my mother] showed me her paycheck, and then she shows me the bills,” Lattimore remembers. “And I’m like, ‘How are we living?’
“We really didn’t have too much but it was always love.”
Lattimore’s mother, Felicia Killebrew, knew her son had football talent, and of course, she didn’t want the streets sucking him in. Lattimore was zoned for Glenville High School, but instead he attended Ginn Academy, a high school opened by Ted Ginn Sr. in 2007 for at-risk boys in the area. About 200 students were enrolled when Lattimore attended, and Ginn Sr. says he has about 430 in the school now.
Ginn Academy educates the boys during the day, but the school has a deal worked out with the district to allow those boys play for Glenville High School. There are eight active NFL players who played for Glenville High, which is tied for second-most in the league today, and the Saints have three of them: Lattimore, Ted Ginn Jr. and Justin Hardee.
“It’s easy for the streets to take over your kid. People robbing people, there’s just so much living in the inner city. And I just didn’t want him in that,” Killebrew says. “Also with those little girls getting in their head and getting in their way. I know my son is a lot smarter than that. I wasn’t too much worried but they just wanted to make sure that he kept focused and his eye on the prize.
“There’s so much going on in our area it’s crazy, so when these guys do get to the point to get out of here, it’s good to see some of them that take that chance. That’s why I’m so proud of those three young men (Lattimore, Ginn Jr. and Hardee) because they could have easily been a victim to the streets.”
At Glenville, Lattimore wore No. 2—Ginn Jr.’s old number that is bestowed annually to the team’s top player. He moved around in the defensive backfield and also had 40 catches for 911 yards and 16 touchdowns as a receiver.
Ginn Jr., 11 years Lattimore’s senior, had been hearing about the rookie since Lattimore was a pup in little league. Most in the community saw Lattimore’s raw athleticism that Ginn Sr. eventually honed before sending him and two other Tarblooders to Urban Meyers’ Buckeyes in that year’s signing class alone.
But there could have been more. There always can be more. Ginn Sr. shudders to think about those in Glenville whose talents were never realized.
“I think the number [of NFL players from Glenville] would be so ridiculous that it’d be shameful,” Ginn Sr. says. “I’ve been coaching in Glenville 41 years. I was a kid in that same area. And there’s been so much talent that went through there that was never tapped into for several reasons.
“See, Glenville is a belief system. You believe first and learn later. In today’s time, the dysfunction in the community and the toughness have taken over the belief. And the kids don’t understand the hard work that has to be put in. See, Marshon worked hard. Ted and Justin worked hard. It made their life. Not everyone is willing to do that. So in turn you’re going to lose a lot of kids because they’re going to bypass the belief part.”
Says Ginn Jr.: “If we all put our heads together and get away from that dumb stuff we could have a lot of kids from our area making a lot of money,” Ginn Jr. says. “It’s just a blessing to see [Marshon] in this locker room.”
In the midst of three consecutive 7-9 seasons from 2014-16, New Orleans’ defense ranked in the bottom fourth in the league in points and yards allowed in each of those seasons. Drew Brees, who is nearing 40 years old, just needed a decent defense to give the Saints another playoff run.
In order to build that defense, New Orleans tried this offseason to grab Super Bowl XLIX hero Malcolm Butler from the Patriots, but a trade for the corner never materialized. The Saints general manager Micky Loomis and director of college scouting Jeff Ireland zeroed in on the corner out of Ohio State who had undergone hamstring surgery in his freshman year and had only been a starter for one full season with the Buckeyes.
“Hypothetically if he hadn’t maybe had the injury history, there’s a good chance that he wouldn’t have been there at [the 11th pick],” head coach Sean Payton said in November. “But I do know this: from doing our homework at the program and having two Ohio State players here [Vonn Bell and Michael Thomas] and getting to know him for a corner that can run with length and ball skills like he has, all of those things made it worth the risk. And make no mistake about it, when you have a selection like that there is risk and that goes with it.”
Lattimore first injured his hamstring while running track in high school, but he didn’t think much of it, figuring that some rest would help him heal. At Ohio State, Lattimore stood out immediately at practice, getting two picks in one day during his first week. But on the third day, he went up against Thomas on a simple go route, and he felt a pain as if he had been shot in the back of the leg. After learning he had torn his left hamstring, Lattimore opted for surgery so that he could get it out of the way early.
The injured hamstring continued to give Lattimore problems when he returned for his redshirt freshman season, but he broke out in 2016, tallying four interceptions and nine pass breakups for the Buckeyes under defensive coordinator Greg Schiano.
“After [the surgery] I knew I could always play but it was just me getting healthy enough to play,” Lattimore says. “With that one year I’m glad it happened like that so I was eligible to leave after that one year. I was one-and-done like a basketball player. I’m glad it saved a lot on my body.”
Lattimore was the first corner taken off the board in the 2017 draft, and no one knew better than bell what his struggling defense was getting. Bell, like Lattimore, had two picks in one of his first practices with Ohio State, and so he recognized that Lattimore was for real.
But it isn’t the pick-six or the Nelson pass breakup that impresses Bell the most about the rookie corner, but his willingness to do things few corners—rookies or not—will do.
“It’s really his tackling. Especially in this league as a safety you want to make sure the corners tackle,” says Bell of Lattimore, whose four tackles-per-game average is best among all rookie corners. “And that shows the strength of the defense when the corners tackle. That’s really what’s been impressing to me. It’s him not being afraid to throw his body in there, showing that he can. It’s a grown-man league.”
And Lattimore is only 21, part of a great Saints rookie class that has many reminiscing about the 2006 class that eventually brought the ’09 Super Bowl season.
He straddles that delicate line of confidence and arrogance. He and his Saints teammates pose for pictures on the field after turnovers. His Twitter account is a treasure trove of jokes and retweets complimenting his play.
And when asked about his pursuit of the Defensive Rookie of the Year award, Lattimore doesn’t dive into platitudes about just wanting to be a team player and help in any way he can.
“Oh yeah of course I want to win that. That’s just me being competitive,” Lattimore says. “What am I here for if I’m not trying to be great? Of course that’s on my mind.”
Two years ago, Peters picked off eight balls for the Chiefs in his rookie season to win the award. Before that, the previous defensive back winner was Woodson, who won it in 1998 when he intercepted five passes and forced two fumbles.
It’s unclear why it’s so difficult for rookie defensive backs to win this award, but Lattimore is looking to make it three in 20 years.
“One of my pet peeves of defensive backs is not getting their head around,” Woodson said, via a spokeswoman. “And when I watch him he does a very good job of getting his head around and locating the ball and being able to go up and try to make a play on the ball. I think he’d have a much easier time getting Rookie of the Year if he caught a lot of the balls he got his hands on. But of course that will come.
“You have to be able to see the ball in order to make a play on it, and he does a good job at that. And as far as man to man, playing press coverage, the thing I notice about him is he has really good hips, really good eyes, really good change of direction.”
The march toward the award has been put on hold for three weeks, though. Lattimore, who rolled his ankle in the first series against Washington in Week 11, hasn’t played since that game. After going six straight weeks holding opponents to less than 300 yards passing with Lattimore on the field, New Orleans has given up at least 300 passing yards in consecutive games before shoring up in last week’s win against Carolina.
Now Lattimore readies for the Falcons on Thursday night for the first of two games in three weeks against the reigning NFC champs. Listed as questionable, Lattimore would likely cover Julio Jones, who has 577 receiving yards in his past six games against New Orleans. Successful games by Lattimore against Jones could help the Saints to their first division title since 2011.
Lattimore’s mother is still searching for her new home that her son promised her shortly after he signed his $15.36 million rookie deal. But don’t worry, he already treated her to a 2017 Mercedes GLA250.
She doesn’t consider her son a meal ticket, though, and so she still works a full slate as a nurse’s assistant. “As a mother, I can’t get my mind off of this, that most NFL players go broke,” Killebrew says.
Lattimore swears he’s keeping a level head when it comes to his bank account. He can’t recall any large purchases for himself; all he’s doing is saving.
But even when he was younger and money was sparse, the good times were plentiful. About two years ago when Lattimore was home from college, he and his mother were sitting on the couch when Alicia Keys’ “No One” started playing. They belted out the lyrics as his sister teased them.
For years, when they didn’t have anything they had each other. And when they really didn’t have anything, she created.
“My mother, she just made up any type of meal,” Lattimore said. “She put anything together. And that’d be the best meal sometime, the stuff that don’t traditionally go together.”
Killebrew often resorted to rummaging through the cabinet, trying to figure out how to feed the kids. Once she took the little bit of hamburger meat she had and scrambled that up, put it on some soft-shell tortillas, grilled a chicken breast and a side of sour cream. Then she took that 99-cent bag of Doritos and crushed that on top for family taco night.
But there’s one that Lattimore loved the most. One he wasn’t exactly sure what was on it until a few weeks ago. Killebrew would take some garlic bread, put scrambled eggs on top, syrup as dressing and then maybe some fried bologna cut up on the side. Healthy? Killebrew admits it was not. But it was a meal.
“That’s it!” Lattimore says, swirling fruit punch in a styrofoam cup after being told the recipe to his favorite made-up meal. “That was definitely what it was.”