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Another week, another monumental challenge for New Orleans Saints pass defense

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Saints 12 - Carolina 9 (W) New Orleans Saints 2018 Season Michael C. Hebert

The roll call of standout receivers the New Orleans Saints have faced this season is impressive.

There's been Tampa Bay's Mike Evans (twice) and DeSean Jackson. Atlanta's Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Calvin Ridley (all twice). They visited Odell Beckham Jr. of the Giants.

Minnesota presented Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, the Rams featured Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp. Philadelphia brought to town Alshon Jeffery, and Dallas had Amari Cooper.

So it's not just lip service when secondary members of the Saints (12-2) say they expect to be ready for the challenge Sunday against Pittsburgh (8-5-1) in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

They'll have to be, because it's one of the biggest challenges they'll face.

Steelers receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster (95 receptions, 1,274 yards and six touchdowns) and Antonio Brown (90-1,112-13) possibly are the most formidable tandem in the league, prominent contributors to a passing offense that ranks third in the league, with 311.9 yards per game.

"Well, we've got Julio, we've got to play them twice," cornerback Marshon Lattimore said. "It's one of those matchups. But we've had some matchups this year that we've had to really lock in to. But it's one of those matchups."

Smith-Schuster is sixth in the league in receiving yards, and Brown – who has 57 touchdown receptions in the last five seasons – leads the NFL in touchdown catches this year.

"Definitely looking forward to it," cornerback Eli Apple said. "They're definitely one of the better passing teams in the NFL, and it's going to be a great challenge.

"We know we have a lot on our plate, so we've just got to watch a lot of film and be as prepared as possible."

Apple has been consuming much of what has been on his plate the last several games, as the Saints' pass defense has ascended. Since New Orleans acquired him in a trade with the Giants on Oct. 23, Apple has two interceptions (a career high, and tied for the team lead), eight passes defensed (third) and a fumble recovery.

In the last six games, especially, the Saints' pass defense has been superb, allowing 197.2 yards per game – four opponents have been held to 174 yards or less – and seven touchdowns, with eight interceptions and 28 sacks.

"I feel a lot more comfortable every week, just trying to get my momentum going every day," Apple said.

The rise in his level of play has been noticeable among teammates. Apple came up with an critical end zone interception with 10 seconds left in the first half against Carolina on Monday night, to keep the Panthers' lead at 7-6.

"Everybody is clicking together," said Lattimore, who also has two interceptions and leads the team with 11 passes defensed. "Like I've said before, every week has to get better and we've been doing that. Every week we're just clicking in.

"Eli's showing he's got some dawg – he got a pick in the red zone (against Carolina), key tackles. So everybody is clicking together, and I feel like it's coming along."

It's coming along at the right time, because Smith-Schuster and Brown are handfuls. Smith-Schuster has seven 100-plus yard receiving games and five games with eight or more catches, and Brown has four 100-plus yard games and four games of nine or more catches.

"They're explosive players," Coach Sean Payton said. "They run well, they've got great ball skills. It's challenging with two, relative to how you cover them. I think they transition very well – they can get to top-end speed but they can also stop, and that allows them to create the separation. And then you partner that with a quarterback like Ben (Roethlisberger), and that makes for a challenging day."

It's a challenge that Lattimore, Apple and the Saints' pass defense is looking forward to.

"Just competing with them," Lattimore said. "They're great receivers, and I feel like we're great cornerbacks. So we're going to go head to head, and the best man wins."

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