New Orleans Saints defensive end Will Smith (91) reaches for New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez (6) in the first half of an NFL football game in New Orleans, Sunday, Oct. 4, 2009. Smith caused a fumble and the Saints recovered for a touchdown. (AP Photo/Bill Haber)
NEW ORLEANS -- Darren Sharper needed a measly four games with the New Orleans Saints to start rewriting club records.
Sharper victimized Jets rookie Mark Sanchez for two interceptions, one of which he returned a franchise-record 99 yards for a score to help the unbeaten Saints hand Gang Green its first loss, 24-10 on Sunday.
The play not only was the longest interception return in Saints history, but also gave Sharper 275 interception return yards this season, meaning he already has smashed the club's previous single-season mark of 198 set by Gene Atkins in 1991.
The 33-year-old veteran began his 13th season as the NFL's active leader in interceptions and has added five more for a career total of 59, which ranks ninth all-time.
"I'm just excited that (the Saints) picked me and allowed me to continue my career," said Sharper, noting that new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has unleashed him to make plays on the ball. "It's the perfect situation and the perfect fit."
Sharper's trademark shoulder-shaking celebrations are becoming a symbol of a defense that has showed a new penchant for big plays while playing a key role in the Saints' first 4-0 start since 1993.
The Jets-Saints matchup drew a lot of attention not only because it was the weekend's only game between unbeaten teams, but also because it pitted a fearsome defense designed by Jets coach Rex Ryan against the Saints' league-leading offense, driven by quarterback Drew Brees and the creative playcalling of coach Sean Payton.
The Jets (3-1) stopped the Saints twice on fourth-and-short and held Brees to 190 yards passing and no touchdowns. After averaging 40 points through their first three games, the Saints didn't score an offensive touchdown until Pierre Thomas barreled in from a yard out with 6:07 left. Yet that was more than enough, thanks to the Saints defense.
"I know everybody had their eyes on the Jets' defense," Saints linebacker Scott Fujita said. "We came into this game wanting to outplay their defense. I think we did and it feels good."
Although the Saints' offense had trouble scoring, Thomas helped New Orleans edge New York in time of possession with 86 yards rushing and 46 yards receiving. Brees completed 20 of 32 passes and was not intercepted or sacked once.
"I don't think he was the regular Drew Brees, but he did make enough throws to win the game," Ryan said.
The victory ensured the Saints, who have a bye week coming up, would still be unbeaten when they host the New York Giants on Oct. 18.
In his first loss as a pro, Sanchez completed 14 of 27 passes for 138 yards, was sacked four times, and threw three interceptions. He also was stripped by Saints defensive end Will Smith in the Jets' end zone, leading to a second defensive TD for New Orleans when Remi Ayodele recovered, making it 17-0.
"My mistakes killed us. They absolutely killed us," Sanchez said. "The defense played well enough to win. That whole game is 10-10 without three interceptions and a fumble. You turn the ball over like that in this league, and you can't win."
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 at the Saints 34.
The Saints' defense held from there, however, allowing New Orleans to take a late two-touchdown lead with an 11-play, 74-yard touchdown drive. Brees sustained the key series by drawing New York offside on fourth-and-1, recovering Thomas' fumble on the next play, then hitting Robert Meachem on third down for a 19-yard gain deep into Jets territory.