Saints show they should be considered among the NFL's best


NEW ORLEANS -- An encompassing well of awe seemed to build in the Superdome during one moment of the Saints' 24-10 victory over the New York Jets on Sunday. It was more than momentum. The need to grip tightly onto something to keep from being overwhelmed seemed like the natural thing to do.

It came early in the second quarter, on New Orleans' first offensive drive after safety Darren Sharper returned an intercepted Mark Sanchez pass 99 yards for a touchdown to give the Saints a 10-0 lead. Running back Pierre Thomas had just taken a short pass from Drew Brees and made a determined 36-yard trek to the Jets' 1-yard line. Just three games and 25 minutes into their 2009 schedule, the Saints had conjured up a perfect storm of offense and defense.

Then they stalled.

Bill Feig / Associated Press
Saints safety Darren Sharper (42) is second on the NFL's all-time list after having the 10th interception return for a touchdown in his career Sunday.
» Sharper's impact in Big Easy
Most interception returns for TDs in an NFL career

A defense determined to keep the Saints out of the end zone and gain a sliver of positivity finally bore fruit for the Jets, who stopped two runs and two passes to deny New Orleans on downs. The Saints' mystic surge didn't fade, though. That's because in that moment, New Orleans showed what it might really be about this season.

Saints coach Sean Payton, not one to play things too conservatively, opted to bypass a chip-shot field-goal attempt because he trusted his defense enough to make something happen should his masterpiece of an offense fail. The thought, let alone the actual exercise, was a departure because the defense had been too untrustworthy in previous years.

Not now. Definitely not now.

Saints defensive end Will Smith sacked Sanchez in the end zone, forcing him a fumble that defensive tackle Remi Ayodele recovered for a touchdown -- the defense's second in a five-minute, 45-second span.

The sequence showed more about the Saints' identity than athletic prowess or execution of scheme. They are a complete team. Offense, defense, special teams. They can run. They can pass. They can tackle. They force turnovers and capitalize on them. As the Jets likely discovered as they limped off the airplane late Sunday night with their first loss of the season, these undefeated Saints also can rumble.

"Maybe not since the LaDainian Tomlinson days in San Diego," Brees said about when he last had a team that produced like this on both sides of the ball. "I'm ecstatic for the way we've come together as a team, what we've been able to do defensively and on special teams and the balance we have offensively."

While Payton, Brees and the offense are still the backbone, the defense has bared its teeth. New defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is receiving most of the credit for the turnaround -- so much so that at some point, the players who might have sensitive egos could begin to wonder if he's actually on the field making tackles, forcing fumbles and returning interceptions.

Williams, who didn't speak after the game because he's only allowed to talk on Fridays, has tried to deflect the attention, but the respect he's earning can't be misplaced. Williams took over a Saints defense that ranked 23rd overall, added just two key free agents (Sharper and cornerback Jabari Greer) and turned it into a unit that stands on the sideline and hopes for a few offensive three-and-outs so it can go back on the field.

New Orleans' defense claims to hold the unofficial league lead on quarterback hits and, for the moment, moved ahead of the Green Bay Packers, who play the Minnesota Vikings on Monday night, for the official league lead in interceptions (10) and takeaways (13).

Can a coach make that much of a difference?

"Yes, they can, by keep preaching and preaching and making guys do it every day in practice," Sharper said.

So can a veteran of Sharper's ilk.

The free safety, in his 13th NFL season, is savvy and reliable enough to allow Williams to be more aggressive with his play calls. Sharper, who has a league-high five interceptions and returned two for 97- and 99-yard touchdowns, often is left to play center field because he's so adept on reading player's tendencies -- quarterbacks in particular -- that Williams allows him to sometimes freelance. In return, the front seven is allowed to be more aggressive, force the ball out of a quarterback's hand a little quicker and be a little off target.

"What this defense allows him to do with Gregg Williams' style and aggressiveness and pressure, it really allows Sharper to do what he does best, and that's sit back and be the quarterback of the defense," said Brees, who faced Sharper for years and who the safety says is the only quarterback whose tendencies he has yet to figure out. "He can read route combinations and jump certain routes. You see him really driving this defense."

Williams' biggest aide, though, has been New Orleans' ability to take a lead. The Saints have never trailed this season. That has prompted opposing teams to get a little out of their game plan and let New Orleans dictate things on both sides of the ball. The only real mystery left for the Saints is, how will they respond when they have to rally?

What was learned against the Jets, who turned over the ball four times, was that the Saints might not have to rely on their offense to find out. Brees had his second consecutive game without a touchdown pass. This also was the first game in which New Orleans didn't have a 100-yard rusher. Yet because of the two defensive scores and a 1-yard TD run by Pierre Thomas, the Saints scored seven more points on the Jets than any other team thus far.

We might know something more about New Orleans in two weeks, when it comes off a bye to play the New York Giants, who should be 5-0 after playing the Oakland Raiders next week. New Orleans and New York's NFC team are arguably the top two in the conference, if not the league, after the first quarter of the season. The game will be big for more than just the hype of two undefeated teams playing one another -- especially for this upgraded Saints defense.

The Saints will face Giants quarterback Eli Manning, his health willing. So far, they've faced rookies Matthew Stafford (Detroit Lions) and Sanchez, backup Kevin Kolb (Philadelphia Eagles) and third-year pro Trent Edwards (Buffalo Bills). The fact that New Orleans hasn't caught a top-tier quarterback yet is no reason to diminish anything its defense has done. Those teams have other strengths, especially the Jets, whose defense didn't make things easy for the Saints.

The Saints, while saying they're trying hard not to buy in too much that they're a dominant team, admit there's something special brewing. Something more special than the last New Orleans team that made it to the playoffs, in 2006, when it rode the wave of emotion from Hurricane Katrina and the fresh legs of then-rookie running back Reggie Bush to the NFC Championship Game.

"The emotion is similar, and the emotion in town is starting to pick up and that's similar, but the focus from this team is the best it's ever been," Saints linebacker Scott Fujita said. "In '06, we were good. We surprised everybody. I think in some cases we surprised ourselves a little bit. Everything got so big and so special in '06. This season, it's about the next game, and that's all that matters to us."



The previous element was an advertisement.

NFL Shop