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Original Issue

No Big Easy

The Saints' once-soft defense has turned tough thanks to its new hard-hitting, ball-hawking approach

For the past three seasons the Saints have been half a football team, one with an offense potent enough to offset its porous defense. The shortcomings of that defense figured to be cast into further relief against the Jets' aggressive unit, which entered their game on Sunday ranked third in the league in yards allowed, second in points allowed—and first in swagger. ¬∂ But instead it was the New Orleans D that showed newfound confidence and delivered its most impressive performance of the season. The Saints' intense, physical play proved to be the difference in a 24--10 victory—and made the Jets' defense look timid by comparison. "We came in wanting to outplay their defense," said linebacker Scott Fujita. "I think, when we look at the film, that we'll be able to say that we did."

The win kept NFC South--leading New Orleans unbeaten (at 4--0) heading into a bye week, and marked another step forward for a unit that has improved drastically under first-year coordinator Gregg Williams. In previous stops at Tennessee (where his defense led the Titans to the 2000 Super Bowl), Buffalo, Washington and Jacksonville, Williams built 4--3 schemes predicated less on stymieing opponents than on stinging them with hits and stripping them of the ball. Because it encourages players to take risks and attack—"He takes the handcuffs off us," says free safety Darren Sharper—Williams's scheme works well on a team with a high-powered offense that provides a safety net.

In addition to having the NFL's top-ranked offense, the Saints now lead the league in quarterback hits and turnovers forced. "We're bringing it," says cornerback Randall Gay. "[Williams] got everybody to feed into what he's saying, and it's showing on the field." And though New Orleans continues to give up lots of yards (295.3 per game), the Saints have allowed just four offensive touchdowns in the last 13 quarters.

New Orleans followed its hard-hitting, ball-hawking formula against New York and made Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez look like the rookie he is. While Sanchez had shown only flashes of inexperience in his three previous pro starts, his performance against the Saints laid bare several bad habits. He stared down his intended targets, backpedaled from pocket pressure and persisted in palming the ball with one hand instead of two, as his coaches had implored him to for better ball security.

New Orleans wasted no time capitalizing on Sanchez's mistakes. When Sharper caught the quarterback staring down tight end Dustin Keller on a play in the second quarter, he intercepted the ensuing pass and returned it 99 yards for a touchdown and a 10--0 Saints lead.

Three possessions later, with the Jets facing second-and-seven at their own five, defensive end Will Smith streaked past left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson and jarred the ball loose from Sanchez's outstretched arm. Nosetackle Remi Ayodele recovered in the end zone for a touchdown. "[Sanchez is] very loose with the ball," said Ayodele after the game. "We knew if we could get to him, that we could get it out."

Sanchez shouldered the blame. "The game is 10--10 without three interceptions and a fumble. I made poor decisions and that cost us," he said. But the New Orleans defense is teeming with the kind of dynamic playmakers who can torment offenses, including Smith and Charles Grant, both of whom were nearly suspended for the first four games of the season after testing positive for a prescription diuretic that is also a banned substance. (NFL commissioner Roger Goodell decided against enforcing the suspension while a case against two Vikings players for the same offense is pending in Minnesota state court.) The Saints have also benefited from the heady play of Fujita, whose tight coverage helped produce the pivotal sack and forced fumble in the second quarter.

But no player has had a bigger impact than Sharper. Last spring Minnesota let the 33-year-old free agent leave for New Orleans. He has thrived in Williams's system, which accentuates Sharper's ability to read quarterbacks and gives him—and similarly instinctual teammates like Gay, who had an interception against the Jets—freedom to follow their hunches.

Most important, the Saints' elevated defensive play provides the team's offense a measure of security when quarterback Drew Brees has an off day. The Jets game marked the second time in as many weeks that Brees failed to pass for more than 200 yards or throw a touchdown pass.

His teammates figure it's high time they picked up some slack. "We just want to hold up our end of the bargain," says Fujita. "We're starting to do that, and that's a good sign."

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Photograph by SIMON BRUTY

GOLD RUSH As Fujita (55) closed in, Smith (left) sacked Sanchez in the end zone and forced the Jets' quarterback into one of his four turnovers.