Monday was a liberating day for New Orleans Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore.
He had the cast on his hand removed and with it, any reasons he might have had not to be more of a play-maker on defense for the Saints (5-3), who will play Tennessee (7-2) on Sunday at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tenn.
Lattimore chipped a bone in his thumb in the season opener Sept. 12, missed the next game against Carolina, and had been on the field since with the cast. He picked up his only interception of the season in his first game back, against New England in a 28-13 win. Two weeks later, against Washington, he was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week after he finished with six pass breakups in a 33-22 victory.
Arguably, Lattimore has been playing this season at his highest level since entering the NFL and winning Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2017. But he envisions more.
"I had the cast on, so it's really hard to evaluate what I've been doing all the way, for me," Lattimore said. "Now I've got the cast off, I want to see how I really go because I had a lot of plays that I could have had picks on and all that type of stuff, but I couldn't because of the cast. But now, no excuses, no nothing, I just want to go out and play, see what I do."
So far this season, Lattimore has been credited with 10 passes defended and 27 tackles, often assigned with the duty of shadowing an opponent's top receiver when the Saints play man-to-man.
It's a job he seemingly always has relished in the NFL, from the time he entered the league and lined up opposite Julio Jones as a rookie when the All-Pro Jones played with the Falcons, to Sunday, when he likely will draw the assignment of Tennessee's A.J. Brown. (Jones now is a Titan, and on Thursday was listed on the injury report as limited at practice with a hamstring injury.)
"I feel like you can't really play football if you're not a competitor," Lattimore said. "It's really a one-on-one matchup every down. If you're not trying to win, I don't know what you're out there for. For me, it's everything, being competitive and competing, wanting to be the best. That's how I look at it."
The rules of engagement don't necessarily tilt toward defenders, Lattimore said.
"It's an offensive game, obviously," he said. "It's so obvious out there. You can barely touch them past five yards. You can touch them a little bit, (but) pass interference, all that type of stuff. But you've just got to work around it, do your best when it comes to that."
His best this season has been plenty good enough for the Saints, who allow 273.2 passing yards per game (sixth most in the league), but have 11 interceptions (tied for third most in the league) and allow 19.4 points per game, fifth fewest in the NFL.
"But I can step it up a little more," Lattimore said. "But that's all on me, so I'm good with it. I think I'm on track for what I want to do.
"Picks, for sure. And just shutting down receivers all the way. I've been doing that, but not like I want to. I feel like there's another level I can go to, and I'm just trying to work to get there."