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NFL Draft

What Held Marshon Lattimore Back Early Last Season?

  • The Draft Network
  • July 29, 2020
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It’s not an easy argument to make, but I’m going to make it: the NFL is too easy for Marshon Lattimore.

I’m not really going to make it; I don’t think you could. Certainly, Lattimore transitioned into the NFL better than almost anyone in his class did: he won the Defensive Rookie of the Year award in 2017, reeling in five interceptions and producing 18 pass breakups as the New Orleans Saints got one play away from the NFC Championship Game (this was the Minneapolis Miracle year, not the Nickell Robey-Coleman gets to do whatever he wants year).

The thing about a five-pick, 18-PBU rookie season is that it’s tough to top. Lattimore has yet to match that ball production in his sophomore or junior seasons in the league, despite playing in more games in both 2018 and 2019 than he did in 2017. In that time, Buffalo Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White has caught up to him in ball production, and Baltimore Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey is hot on his tail.

There isn’t really an argument to be made that Lattimore has gotten worse. Lattimore remains scheme-interchangeable, having the same eye-popping success in off coverage as he does in press coverage, representing the same threat in man-matching rules as he does in true spot-dropping zone. Everything Lattimore does is tethered to extremely quick feet, clean hips, and smart eyes. He is as springy and as fluid a corner as you’ll find in the NFL, and that allows him to relate to the league’s best route runners without allowing throwing windows to open.

So why has Lattimore’s production leveled out following his home run rookie season? Was there really nothing he could improve on?

Weirdly enough, the answer is… pretty much, yeah. Lattimore’s biggest issues in 2019 weren’t a result of bad technique or declining athleticism or limited ability. They were easy and stupid mistakes, born of a lackadaisical approach that allowed such little cracks to go unchecked until suddenly, they tore through the foundation of his game. Take it from Lattimore himself, who reflected on his poor opening to start the 2019 season, via ESPN

"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.
"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. … Instead of just being locked in three quarters, I was locked in four quarters."

Those dumb mistakes? They were reflected in Lattimore’s production. Through the first three weeks of the season, in which Lattimore primarily saw Houston’s DeAndre Hopkins, Los Angeles’ Robert Woods/Brandin Cooks, and Seattle’s Tyler Lockett, Lattimore was fifth-worst in the NFL in yards allowed/coverage snap (2.77)—his 341 coverage yards surrendered was worst in the league. These numbers put him in such company as Maurice Canady, Aaron Colvin, DeAndre Baker, Jamal Perry, and Isaac Yiadom—not the contemporaries with whom he was typically listed.

Of course, three games is a small sample size and does not a season or career make. But the nature of the big plays he surrendered was important because it was focus stuff. A late touchdown to Hopkins, a big play to Cooks and another to Kupp—and even rookie D.K. Metcalf got him on scramble drills—missed tackles, double moves… situationally, these aren’t plays that a star cornerback should be surrendering.

Consider the final bomb to Metcalf as a good example. Even at this point in his career, defenses knew Metcalf wasn’t running a ton of breaking routes. So Lattimore, rotating to a deep third in Cover 3, appropriately stays atop Metcalf’s vertical stem, settling his weight once Metcalf breaks and looks back to the quarterback.

Now, Lattimore is staring at Russell Wilson, who is perhaps the most dangerous scrambling quarterback in the NFL. Because Lattimore’s a smart cookie, he knows that, should Wilson scramble toward Metcalf’s side of the field, Metcalf’s rule in the scramble drill will dictate that Metcalf goes deep, opening up the intermediate areas of the field for other receivers to come crossing into. And even if Metcalf were to stay squatting intermediate and try to work back to Wilson, Lattimore has a ton of time to close on a very tight throw against the sideline.

But Lattimore, completely guessing here, lunges downfield at Metcalf for a throw that Wilson never even threatens. He’s out of position when Metcalf does what Lattimore should have expected him to do, and even worse, Lattimore doesn’t get a paw on Metcalf to try and slow his climb and force an inaccurate pass, or buy more time for the safety. You’d expect this mistake from a younger corner, but you wouldn’t even have expected it from rookie year Lattimore. Why now?

Whatever it was that had Lattimore running below 100%, he shed it quick, and that was important to see. Lattimore drew Amari Cooper in Week 4 and Mike Evans in Week 5—through three weeks, they were the sixth- and fourth-best receivers in the league in yards per route run, respectively. Lattimore shut down Cooper for 5 receptions and 48 yards. Evans, he completely blanked: 3 targets, 0 receptions, 0 yards.

It was like a switch was flipped for Lattimore. His machines started humming, and they never cooled off. For the rest of the regular season following his three-game snooze, Lattimore was 10th in the league in yards allowed/coverage snap (0.62), down more than two yards/snap from his early-season numbers, and he was eighth in the league in receptions allowed/coverage snap as well. 

Again, you can’t really make the case that Lattimore got so bored with the NFL that it took two of the best receivers in the league to renew his interest in competing. It’s too ludicrous to even broach. But, if there is something holding Lattimore back from rising into an undisputed throne in the elite tier of current NFL cornerbacks, it’s not zone spacing or ball skills or penalties—it’s easy, boneheaded stuff like focus issues and mental errors. Wipe those away, and you might uncover that rookie season Lattimore once again.

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