By BRETT MARTEL, AP Sports Writer
NEW ORLEANS (AP) A vastly improved defense with a penchant for big plays has the New Orleans Saints undefeated through four games for the first time since 1993.
Darren Sharper returned one of his two interceptions of rookie Mark Sanchez a club-record 99 yards for a score, Will Smith forced a fumble in the end zone to produce a second defensive touchdown, and New Orleans handed the New York Jets their first loss, 24-10 on Sunday.
New York (3-1) lost despite stopping the Saints twice on fourth-and-short and holding Drew Brees to 190 yards passing and no touchdowns. New Orleans’ normally high-powered offense, which entered the game ranked first in the NFL, didn’t score a touchdown until Pierre Thomas barreled in from a yard out with 6:07 left.
POne week after rushing for 126 yards and two scores in a victory at Buffalo, Thomas was the Saints’ offensive leader again. He rushed for 86 yards and caught four short passes for 46 yards.
In his first loss as a pro, the Jets’ Sanchez completed 14 of 27 passes for 138 yards, which still might have been enough if not for his four turnovers. Saints cornerback Randall Gay also intercepted Sanchez inside the final two minutes, allowing New Orleans to run out the clock.
While the Jets’ highly regarded defense held Drew Brees and the Saints’ league-leading offense to only three points through the first three quarters, the big plays by New Orleans’ less-heralded defense gave the Saints an early lead.
Sanchez had driven the Jets impressively to the Saints’ 15 early in the second quarter when Sharper anticipated an attempted touchdown pass, picking it off at the 1 and easily running it back for his second long touchdown return of the season to make it 10-0. Only two weeks earlier, Sharper had a 97-yard interception for a score at Philadelphia. It was also Sharper’s 10th career interception for a touchdown, leaving him second all-time in that category, two behind retired former Pittsburgh star Rod Woodson.
Only moments after the Jets celebrated a remarkable defensive stand that stopped New Orleans on four plays from within 2 yards of the goal line, Smith sacked Sanchez in the end zone, forcing a fumble that Remi Ayodele recovered for a touchdown to make it 17-0.
Sanchez may have been to blame for his team’s early deficit, but he wasn’t rattled. He returned to march New York 60 yards in 14 plays, setting up Jay Feely’s 38-yard field goal to make it 17-3, a score that held until halftime.
New York pulled to 17-10 on Thomas Jones’ 15-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, capping a drive set up by Reggie Bush’s fumble on the Saints 34. Bryan Thomas’ hard tackle jarred the ball loose from Bush.
The Saints’ defense held from there, however, allowing New Orleans to take control with an 11-play, 74-yard touchdown drive. The Saints finally converted a fourth-and-1 during the possession, though they did so with Brees’ cadence drawing the Jets offside. Soon after, Brees drilled a third-down pass to Robert Meachem for a 19-yard gain to the Jets’ 12-yard line and Thomas punched it in a few plays later.