From 'butt pick' to goal-line stands, Saints' defense proves it's for real

NEW ORLEANS -- We were supposed to be worried about this resurgent New Orleans Saints defense in the wake of season-ending injuries to linebacker A.J. Klein and safety Kenny Vaccaro this week.

Instead, the Saints’ defense gave one of its most emphatic performances in the team’s biggest game yet -- a 23-13 victory over the rival Atlanta Falcons with control of the NFC South at stake -- highlighted by cornerback Marshon Lattimore’s incredible “butt pick” in the second quarter and a pair of goal-line stands in the second half. Atlanta didn’t score its first touchdown until there was 2 minutes, 40 seconds left in the game.

The Saints (11-4) have now clinched their first playoff berth since 2013. And they can clinch the division title with a win at Tampa Bay next week or a loss by the Carolina Panthers (11-4) at Atlanta (9-6).

More important, they look like a team that’s ready for the playoffs. New Orleans had hit a little bit of a lull with two losses in the previous four games and a sloppy victory at home over the New York Jets last Sunday. But this game put an exclamation point on a great defense.

“Our defensive was magnificent,” Saints coach Sean Payton said in his opening statement -- pointing out that the Saints had also lost starters including DE Alex Okafor, LB Alex Anzalone and CB Delvin Breaux to season-ending injuries earlier on. “I thought that was the difference in the game.”

Naturally, Lattimore's "butt pick" was the talk of the locker room after the game. Players tried (and failed) to come up with a better name for it. Lattimore said he's fine with whatever it's called as long as it's No. 1 on SportsCenter's top 10. And running back Mark Ingram said it should win an ESPY.

"I must be living right, I don’t know,” Lattimore said of the play, where a deep pass was tipped into the air and actually came to rest on top of his backside as he lay face down.

The breakout rookie Pro Bowler was able to secure it against his right thigh with help from teammates Marcus Williams and Craig Robertson. Three plays later, Saints QB Drew Brees hit Ted Ginn Jr. for a 54-yard touchdown pass and a 13-0 halftime lead.

"I was just aware that it didn’t hit the ground yet. So I just grabbed it," Lattimore said. "Everybody else was trying to grab it. So I just had to keep it in my possession.

"I haven’t seen anything like that before. But it helped us win, so that's the biggest thing.”

The goal-line stands were just as big. Defensive tackle Tyeler Davison forced a fumble by Falcons running back Devonta Freeman on second-and-goal from the 1-yard line in the third quarter after Atlanta had threatened to swing momentum with an interception in Saints territory. And linebacker Manti Te’o made a terrific effort to pounce on the loose ball.

Then on the final play of the third quarter, Lattimore tackled Julio Jones just shy of the goal line on third down (which led to a very close replay review). And on fourth-and-inches, Saints linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha and cornerback Ken Crawley combined to stuff Freeman short of a touchdown.

"That’s as good as it gets – especially against a good team," Te'o said of the goal-line stands -- and he's right, since Freeman had come into the game on the heels of a monster Week 15 performance and a long track record of success against New Orleans.

"It’s not like we were playing a bad rushing attack. We were playing one of the best in the NFL," Te'o said. "Those are the things that changes the momentum of the game, and for us to happen twice, it’s huge."

"Man, it’s bigger than words can describe," Saints safety Vonn Bell said of the goal-line stands. "It really brought energy to this team, stopped points on the board. It brought juice and made the environment even more electric."

Te’o had an excellent game, with two big-time tackles for loss and the fumble recovery, which is huge since his role has expanded in the wake of Klein’s season-ending groin injury.

Meanwhile, Saints standout defensive end Cameron Jordan padded his résumé as a NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidate with two more sacks (for 12 on the season). And the Saints had a total of five sacks, including 1.5 by recently signed DE George Johnson.

And the matchup between Lattimore and Jones lived up to the hype. Jones caught seven passes for 149 yards (including an unofficial five for 125 against Lattimore in man coverage). But Lattimore had the interception, the end-zone tackle and two pass breakups on third downs against Jones as they went back and forth throughout the day.