Marshon Lattimore has spent a lot of time watching Vonn Bell play football.
The two played together in college before being reunited in New Orleans last year. Lattimore knew all the safety needed was a chance. Even though the Saints often used three-safety sets, Bell was playing behind Marcus Williams and Kenny Vaccaro.
“He was boxed in like a caged animal,” Lattimore said. “I know what he’s capable of, and I know that he’s a great player. Even in college, you’d look at him like, ‘Vonn’s the truth.’ When I got here, he was kind of in and out, but if you just let Vonn get into his game, you’re going to see a different player.”
Bell is now uncaged. He’s sharing the strong safety position with newcomer Kurt Coleman, but Bell has claimed the nickel snaps, which has kept him on the field for 70 percent of the defensive snaps versus Coleman’s 42 percent. Bell might not be the starter on paper, but he is in practice.
The Saints didn’t intend for the situation to play out this way. They didn’t sign Coleman to a three-year, $16.35 million contract to have him play base downs. Bell forced that situation by stepping up, improving and claiming the role. He received the message and was motivated to do it.
While he’s enjoyed having Coleman around and said the two have meshed well both on and off the field, Bell knew he had something to prove when New Orleans signed someone else instead of giving him the job once it moved on from Vaccaro.
“Being around, we lost KV, ‘OK, I’m next up, I’m going to be the guy,’ ” Bell said. “They brought another guy, we like veteran guys, but I stepped up to the plate. Iron sharpens iron. You never shy away from that.”
For his part, Coleman, in his ninth season, has embraced his role on the field and as the veteran member of the secondary.
“I’m excited for what Vonn’s been able to do,” Coleman said. “I told him from the moment I got here that I want to see him succeed. That’s part of my role here, to see the guys around me continue to grow and get better as a group and individually.”
There’s a reason Bell doesn’t shy away when asked if this is the best he’s played. “I think so; I’m growing into myself,” he says.
Everything has become easier for this season, and that is probably why everyone has a different answer when asked where Bell has shown the most growth. Some say coverage, others cite his angles on tackles. There are even a few submissions for explosiveness.
But the common thread behind all of those things is Bell’s improved awareness and understanding of what he’s supposed to be doing and why he’s doing it. In his third season, Bell is grasping all of it on a deeper level and has been able to make more plays.
“The first couple of years, you can see when the play is going on there’s a thought process that’s going on through his mind,” defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said. “And I think now he’s able to just rely on his instincts and see the play happening and be able to make a fast decision.”
In Week 5 against Washington, Bell got off a block, worked his way through the wash and stopped Adrian Peterson for a gain of 2 yards. Later in the same game, he blitzed and broke up an Alex Smith pass. Later, he dropped running back Chris Thompson in the backfield for a loss of a yard.
These highlights keep coming. In a game against the Giants, working as a deep safety, Bell read a pass to tight end Rhett Ellison up the seam and broke it up. Against the Ravens, he dropped into a shallower zone, read a pass to Alex Collins and crashed down to make an open-field tackle. Against the Vikings, he quickly realized tight end Kyle Rudolph was open on a delayed route and crashed over to stop him for a gain of a yard.
So, yes, Bell is winning in a variety of ways, and it’s clear that most of them are the result of him seeing the field and making quick decisions.
“The game slowed down,” Bell said. “Just knowing the situation of the game, because I’ve grown through situational football, which has helped me the most though every phase, the red zone, third down, two minute, and that’s what wins games. I think I’ve elevated my game with that, just being knowledgeable.”
So now that he’s getting out of that box, is Bell living up the standard Lattimore has for his teammate?
“You’re going to see,” Lattimore said, “once he goes out and unleashes it.”
He’s out and unleashed, and by all accounts it has been the best stretch of Bell’s career.