Eli Apple peaking as Saints' cornerbacks approach toughest test yet

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Eli Apple made the biggest play of the night on Monday, intercepting Cam Newton in the end zone just before halftime of the New Orleans Saints' 12-9 victory against the Carolina Panthers.

Apple also had a key tackle in the final minute of the second half to help the Saints ice the game.

And, really, the third-year cornerback has been playing lights-out for the past two weeks now -- easily his best stretch since joining the Saints in an October trade with the New York Giants.

"My teammates, they're bringing out the best in me. They push me every day, especially Coach AG [secondary coach Aaron Glenn] and the whole defensive staff," said Apple, who was traded for a 2019 third-round draft pick and a seventh-rounder in 2020. "Every week, it's just understanding the defense, understanding how my teammates play and just playing with more confidence."

Apple, 23, had some highs and lows during his first six weeks with the Saints -- not to mention the extreme highs and lows he had on and off the field with the Giants after being drafted in the first round in 2016.

But the 6-foot-1, 203-pounder appears to be peaking at the right time.

Not only are the Saints (12-2) about to begin their playoff run, but their cornerback position will really get tested on Sunday when they play host to the Pittsburgh Steelers (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS) and the dynamic duo of Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster.

Apple had one of those lows two weeks ago in a 13-10 loss in Dallas, when the Cowboys repeatedly picked on him by targeting rookie receiver Michael Gallup.

But he bounced back quickly -- and he has become a big part of why the Saints' defense has suddenly become their driving force while the offense continues to struggle.

The Saints have not allowed more than 17 points in the past six weeks. They haven't allowed a single offensive point in the second half of their past three games.

"As a corner, you're gonna have games like that sometimes," Apple said of the Dallas game. "Not every game's gonna go your way or be perfect."

"He's got that dog in him," said fellow Saints cornerback and former Ohio State teammate Marshon Lattimore. "He's had to get comfortable and to understand if they don't attack me, they're gonna come at him every time. He understood that, and he's been turning it up ever since. I try to stay on him all the time, stay in his ear, keep him up. But he's doing great.

"If you come to a new team, you're gonna have to build a relationship with everybody. And we just really threw him out there. The first week he came, he played. And now he's calming down and getting back into how he plays."

We'll find out Sunday just how far Apple and the Saints' cornerbacks have come against Pittsburgh in the Superdome.

No other team in the NFL has two receivers each with at least 90 catches and 1,100 receiving yards (Smith-Schuster has 95 catches for 1,274 yards and six touchdowns, and Brown has 90 for 1,112 and a league-high 13 TD catches).

In other words, there's no such thing as putting your best resources on the opponent's "No. 1 receiver" when the opponent has two No. 1s.

"We're looking forward to the challenge," said Apple -- though he wouldn't play along with the notion that Brown and Smith-Schuster offer the ultimate test.

"Every week's a test," Apple said. "We just played the No. 1 passing offense last week [at Tampa Bay]. So we just gotta continue to get better."

Lattimore, the Saints' No. 1 cornerback who often shadows the opponent's top receiver, took a similar tone.

"I mean, they're great. A great group of receivers. I've got respect for them," Lattimore said of the Steelers. "But we go against [Atlanta Falcons receivers Julio Jones] and Calvin Ridley two times a year, and they're great receivers just like AB and JuJu are great receivers. So we're just gonna go in there and see how it works out."

The only problem with Lattimore and Apple pointing out that the Saints have faced great receiving duos in the past? Those top receiving duos have put up big numbers against New Orleans.

Ridley famously torched the Saints' struggling No. 2 and 3 cornerbacks in Week 3 with seven catches for 146 yards and three touchdowns -- one of the big reasons they decided to trade for Apple. Jones had five catches for 96 yards in that game.

In Week 8, the Minnesota Vikings' outstanding duo of Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs each surpassed 100 yards with a touchdown (Diggs had 10 catches for 119 yards and a TD and Thielen had seven catches for 103 yards and a TD).

In Week 9, the Los Angeles Rams' trio of Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods and now-injured Cooper Kupp combined for 16 catches, 274 yards and two TDs.

And in Week 12, Jones had 11 catches for 147 yards while Ridley had eight catches for 93 yards and a touchdown.

The good news is that the Saints managed to win all of those games. But they still need to prove they can hold up against the Steelers' duo, because there's a good chance they'll face either the Vikings or the Rams again in the playoffs -- if not both.

As the Saints' defenders have been proving more and more each week, though, they're embracing the challenges.

"We're just playing hard, playing for each other, playing great assignment football," Apple said. "Of course, our coaches are putting us in great position to make plays, and we just gotta keep it going."