METAIRIE, La. -- Rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore has been a breakout sensation for the New Orleans Saints this season -- and one of the biggest reasons why they are 9-3 and have turned around their embattled defense.
Hopefully for the Saints' sake -- and for us viewers watching Thursday night's NFC South showdown in Atlanta -- Lattimore will be able to return from an ankle injury in time for one of the most anticipated one-on-one matchups of New Orleans' season.
Lattimore has missed nearly three full games since suffering the injury in the first quarter in Week 11. But he practiced on a limited basis on Tuesday and appears to have a good chance of playing against the Falcons. The Saints thought he had a shot at playing this past Sunday, before a pregame test didn't go as well as hoped.
If the 6-foot, 192-pounder is close to full strength, we could see him shadowing the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Jones, who has a ridiculous amount of speed and burst for his size.
"I think he's right at the top," Saints coach Sean Payton said of Jones. "I heard someone debating between he and [Antonio] Brown at Pittsburgh. They're two different type players. [Jones is] outstanding. His strength, his explosion, his catch radius. I've said this before, when you’re sitting down on the sidelines and all of a sudden he splits out to your sideline and you look at him, it's amazing at how quickly he moves."
When asked if Jones' name would rank among the greatest pass-catchers he has ever seen, Payton said, "It's on the reel."
"I don’t know how long the reel is, but it's on it," Payton explained.
Lattimore has played as well as almost any cornerback in the NFL this season after being drafted with the 11th overall pick out of Ohio State. He has only shadowed a couple of receivers (Brandin Cooks in Week 3 and Davante Adams in Week 7). But he has shown the ability to shut down all types of receivers in single coverage, including the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' big, physical Mike Evans and the smaller, dynamic speedster DeSean Jackson.
Jones is about as difficult a matchup as there is in the NFL because of that combination of size and speed -- and the threat he poses after the catch. Xavier Rhodes, the Minnesota Vikings' standout cornerback, helped limit Jones to just two catches for 24 yards last week. But the week before that, Jones busted loose for 12 catches, 253 yards and two touchdowns against the Buccaneers.
It was the third game of Jones' career with 250-plus yards (no other receiver in NFL history has more than one). This season, Jones ranks third in the league with 1,063 yards on 68 catches, with a surprisingly low total of three touchdowns.
"I think Julio Jones is a huge challenge. I mean, I think he's one of the best receivers in the league," Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said. "He's big, he's physical, he's fast, he possesses everything that you're looking for in a prototypical No. 1 receiver. Then I think even on top of that, when you add the weapons that are around him, I think Matt Ryan is obviously one of the top five quarterbacks in this league.
"Then there are other weapons around, which makes it even more difficult. Because if you spend too much time paying attention to Julio, there are a lot of other weapons that they have -- whether it be the running backs or some of the other receivers, tight ends -- that they can utilize to make it difficult on you."
Payton also complimented Falcons receiver Mohamed Sanu as a tough, strong receiver who is "probably not talked about enough."
The Saints will benefit greatly if both Lattimore and rookie free safety Marcus Williams (who missed last week with a groin injury) are healthy.
"This is a good offense, it's one of our better challenges. We've gotta compete this week," said the Saints' other starting cornerback, Ken Crawley, who has had a very good season himself. "This is a challenge we were waiting for. Hopefully, all our guys will be up this week. We gotta take on the challenge."