NEW ORLEANS -- With both teams coming into Week 4 undefeated at 3-0, it sounds entirely wrong to say we're surprised the New Orleans Saints were able to beat the New York Jets Sunday afternoon at a Superdome made delirious by the 24-10 win.
But let's be honest: It's how the Saints won this showdown that was the stunner. Wasn't it the Jets who entered Sunday as the defensive powerhouse, not a Saints team laden with offensive riches? And isn't it the personality of Rex Ryan's aggressive New York defense to play the bully in games, knocking people off the ball and back on their heels with a week-in, week-out display of superior physicality?
Not this time. Not even close. This time the bully was the Saints, and the Jets were the team getting pushed around. This is going to take some getting used to, but we better all start wrapping our minds around the new reality that New Orleans can win games with its defense, just as easily as it can with its high-powered offense. Because these Saints aren't lopsided, or lacking in physicality, any more.
Defense is no longer a dirty word in New Orleans. It's the buzzword.
"It was all about going out there and showing them who the better defense was,'' said Saints defensive end Charles Grant, who had two of New Orleans four sacks and six quarterback hits. "Today, we were the better defense. We won that battle.''
While New York's defense got most of the pre-game hype, it was the Saints defense that led the way to victory, harassing Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez into four turnovers -- three interceptions and a fumble lost in his own end zone -- and making him for the first time this season look positively rookie-like.
The Saints defense actually out-scored both the entire Jets team and the New Orleans offense 14-10, with omnipresent Saints safety Darren Sharper setting a team-record with a 99-yard interception return for his team's first touchdown in the second quarter, and backup defensive tackle Remi Ayodele recovering a Sanchez fumble in the end zone to make it 17-0 Saints nine minutes before halftime.
Though the Jets rallied to make a game of it in the second half with the next 10 points, New Orleans wound up picking off Sanchez twice more in the final two quarters (Sharper again and cornerback Randall Gay), and added a game-clinching 74-yard, 11-play touchdown drive on offense in the middle of the fourth quarter.
But those are just the particulars, impressive as they might be. The way the Saints defense answered the Jets' physicality with even more of its own was the real eye-opener at the Superdome. Multiple Saints defenders afterward said first-year New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams spent all week stressing to his team that the game against New York would be a 60-minute fight, and nothing short of out-hitting the contact-loving Jets would get the job done.
"We came in this game knowing it was going to be a physical matchup, and we wanted to match their physicality and beat them to the punch every single play,'' Saints strongside linebacker Scott Fujita said. "We knew this was going to be a fight, and Coach (Williams) was saying all week, 'You've got to win the fight before you win the game.' We knew they'd come out swinging, and we wanted to do the same. The energy was high, and we wanted to kind of blow the roof off this place.''
Clearly these aren't your father's Saints. For the second week in a row, New Orleans won a game on the backs of its defense, following up last week's impressive 27-7 victory at Buffalo, when quarterback Drew Brees threw for less than 200 yards for the first time in 23 games. Brees has started a new streak for himself, because against the Jets he was 20 of 32 for 190 yards, with no touchdowns for a second week in a row.
"I think we're known for both (offense and defense) now,'' Grant said. "We want to be the best defense in the National Football League. That's what we're striving for. We just can't get overrated by ourselves, and we've got to just keep working.''
As much credit as Williams deserves for the new-look Saints defense, nobody epitomizes its on-field production as much as Sharper, the 13-year veteran safety who signed a one-year deal with New Orleans during free agency. Sharper's two picks against the Jets give him a league-leading five in four games -- New Orleans also paces the NFL with 10 interceptions and 13 takeaways -- and he has already posted two of the longest three interception returns in team history. His 97-yard pick-six at Philadelphia closed out a New Orleans rout in Week 2.
"I knew it was a perfect fit, once they hired Gregg Williams, with his scheme and the type of football we play here,'' said Sharper, whose 10th career touchdown on interception return put him second behind the NFL's career leader, Rod Woodson (12). "One of my strengths is reading quarterbacks and knowing what they're trying to do with the football. (This defense) takes the handcuffs off.''
Sharper said Sanchez didn't exactly telegraph his three interceptions against the Saints, but the Jets rookie certainly locked in prematurely on his receivers to a degree he hadn't in his first stellar three weeks on the job. Sanchez finished an average 14 of 27 for 138 yards, with those four turnovers and a dismal 27.0 passer rating.
"That's a classic rookie quarterback looking at his receiver,'' Sanchez said, of his first interception to Sharper, which went to the house. "Sharper read me the entire way. He saw my eyes and I threw it right to him. There's absolutely no excuse for that. My mistakes killed us. We spotted them 14 points and the final score was 24-10.''
Sharper was somewhat more diplomatic, saying, "I wouldn't say he eyed his receivers, but at certain times all quarterbacks know where they're going with the football. He did a job of trying to look off guys, but you can use reverse psychology when they try to look you off and then go the opposite way.''
Things are going the opposite way in New Orleans this season. This is the kind of game the Saints never won in the past unless their offense put up its usual 34 points or so. But those days are rapidly becoming a memory. And nobody knows the difference more so than the Saints veteran defenders. Linebackers Fujita and Scott Shanle told me after the game that things went so smoothly on defense that Williams never once had to resort to the kind of exotic blitz calls that he's known for.
"We actually kept it pretty basic,'' said Fujita, who helped limit New York to just 244 total yards and 14 first downs on offense. "We just came out and put the emphasis on being physical and winning the fight. You can play real vanilla, but as long as you're playing physical against a team like this, you've got a pretty good shot.''
At 4-0, our eyes tell us the Saints, Giants, and Colts -- in some order -- are the class of the NFL at the moment. The Vikings might be able to interject themselves into that discussion with an impressive win Monday night at home against Green Bay. But in two weeks, after they take their Week 5 bye, the Saints have another glamour matchup at the Superdome to gear up for. The Giants, who will likely be 5-0 after a home game against hapless Oakland next week, are the next team that will test the validity of New Orleans' new-found strength.
A New York, New York doubleheader of domination, anyone?
"It's a great feeling, man, but now we've got to prove it to the world again,'' Grant said. "Coming in here the Giants will probably be 5-0, so that's going to be another big game to prepare for. We know they're going to come in here with a full head of steam.''
Maybe so, but full head of steam or not, nobody's pushing these Saints around any more. The tough-talking Jets tried it on Sunday, and the Saints -- lo and behold -- have learned to push back.