By BRETT MARTEL
METAIRIE, La. (AP) — Marshon Lattimore and the Saints’ secondary no longer look — or sound — haunted by the “Minnesota Miracle” touchdown pass that stunningly ended their playoffs one year ago.
“We don’t panic. We don’t do none of that,” Lattimore said. “We adjust well.”
Lattimore backed that up with his late-game interception against Philadelphia last weekend — his second of the game — securing the Saints’ trip to Sunday’s NFC title game.
Now the question is whether a Saints defensive backfield that ranked 29th against the pass this season is prepared to do what it takes to slow down the potent Los Angeles Rams with the Super Bowl bid on the line.
“We’re ready,” said Saints cornerback Eli Apple, who was brought in via trade to help shore up a New Orleans pass defense that was shaky early this season.
“We’ve just got to continue to be persistent in these meetings with our questions, everybody get on the same page and learning, just applying it on the field and going hard.”
New Orleans gave up an average of 268.9 yards per game this season, but Lattimore said part of their unflattering ranking as a pass defense stems from a couple of poor performances early in the season, starting with a 48-40 loss to Tampa Bay in Week 1 and a 43-37 Week 3 overtime victory at Atlanta .
“We had a big hole to climb out of at the beginning of the season. We don’t really worry about that though,” Lattimore said. “We’re winning. So, we’re good.”
Lattimore said he also has improved individually since struggling some at the beginning of the season and might be playing his best now.
“I’m just making plays that come my way,” Lattimore said. “I have to be the one to make those plays. It’s a bigger stage right now. So, I have to come up and do the job for my team.”
Saints nickel back P.J. Williams said the Saints’ poor ranking against the pass is misleading because New Orleans ranked first most of the season against the run before finishing second. Meanwhile, Drew Brees and New Orleans’ high-powered offense have staked the Saints to a lot of leads.
And when teams fall behind, they tend to run less because it takes too much time off the clock.
“They can’t run the ball. You got to pass the ball. You’re playing from behind,” Williams said. “So a team might get 300 or so passing yards, but at the end of the day, they’re trying to come back.”
Williams said the Saints are more concerned with opposing QBs’ completion rate than how many yards they allow. On that front, New Orleans ranked somewhat better, at 23rd, allowing a 66.5 percent completion rate.
Rams quarterback Jared Goff completed 28 of 40 passes for 391 yards and three TDs the previous time he played in the Superdome.
Whether he’ll be as productive in the rematch depends on how Los Angeles decides to attack the Saints, and how New Orleans responds.
The Rams often favor the running game, and rushed 48 times for 273 yards in a playoff victory over Dallas last week.
But Los Angeles largely abandoned the run during its midseason meeting with the Saints after New Orleans raced to a 35-14 lead in the second quarter. The Rams wound up rushing just 19 times in a 45-35 loss.
Lattimore said if the Rams abandoned the run again, New Orleans’ secondary will have to be prepared for heavy doses of receivers Brandin Cooks, whose speed makes him an elite deep threat, and Robert Woods, who lines up all over the field.
And if the game is close, it could be up to the Saints’ secondary to close out another high-stakes affair.
Last year, that scenario ended with the Vikings’ Stefon Diggs making a leaping catch near the sideline and running free to the end zone as time expired after safety Marcus Williams missed a tackle and took out teammate Ken Crawley in the process.
This year, the Saints’ secondary has closed out one playoff victory and sounds confident it will rise to that challenge again, if needed.
“We’ve done a great job finishing games, making adjustments, playing fast, physical, making great plays on the ball, just got to keep it going,” Apple said. “Something we always talk about is closing games. We want that on our shoulders and that pressure that comes with it.”