New Orleans, LA - Mark Sanchez has done everything asked of him en route to being the first rookie quarterback to start a season 3-0.
The New York Jets, though, may need even more from Sanchez as their defense faces their sternest challenge to date Sunday against the high-powered New Orleans Saints, who also carry a perfect record into this game.
Oddsmakers from online sports book BetOnline have made the Saints -7 point spread favorites (View NFL odds) for Sunday’s game (Game Matchup). Current public betting information shows that 54% of bets for this game have been placed on the Saints -7 (View NFL bet percentages).
The decision to trade up in the draft to select Sanchez fifth overall has paid immediate dividends for the Jets, off to their best start since 2004. The former USC signal-caller won the starting job in training camp and has not looked back, completing 59 percent of his passes for 606 yards and four touchdowns with two interceptions.
"We don't even look at him as a rookie anymore," Jerricho Cotchery said after catching one of Sanchez's two TD passes in Sunday's 24-17 victory over Tennessee. "When we are out there on Sundays, he is not a rookie, he is our leader. He is the guy that is going to make plays for us and help us get W's."
Cotchery has quickly emerged as Sanchez's primary target with team highs of 18 receptions and 285 yards.
Sanchez also ran for a touchdown Sunday, bulling his way into the end zone at the end of a 14-yard scramble. However, he also had a rookie moment, losing a fumble on a sack because he held the ball too low while trying to move around in the pocket. Still, it's clear Sanchez has command of the huddle and the respect of the veterans.
"He showed me some grit," linebacker Bart Scott said. "He showed that when he makes a mistake, the game isn't over. We still have a game to play. Anytime you have a quarterback that's willing to sit in the pocket, stare down the barrel of the gun and get hit just so he can get the pass off for a completion, you have to respect that."
Scott, a free agent acquisition who came over from Baltimore after the Jets hired coach Rex Ryan from the Ravens, has led an aggressive defense that is second in points allowed (11.0 ppg) and third in yards allowed (256.0) while forcing seven turnovers. That defense has given Sanchez some margin for error, something the Saints will try to reduce by continuing their remarkable offensive efficiency.
"They put up points on everybody," Jets linebacker David Harris said, "so we've got a handful this week."
New Orleans has scored 15 touchdowns and is averaging an NFL-best 40.0 points.
The Saints, who have yet to trail this season, grinded out a 27-7 victory at Buffalo last Sunday behind the running game. They rushed for 222 yards as Pierre Thomas had 126 - all in the second half - and two fourth-quarter touchdown runs despite battling dehydration from being sick Saturday night.
"I didn't really get a chance to go to sleep because the guys just kept messing with me, talking about, 'You ain't sick, you ain't sick, playing like that,'" Thomas recalled. "I really couldn't enjoy it like those guys did, but I still had a smile on my face that we won."
Drew Brees did not have a TD pass after throwing nine in New Orleans' first two victories, but he's more than happy to sacrifice personal numbers if the newfound balance on offense leads to victories.
"As balanced as we've been running and passing, I think we've shown that if you come in against us you need to be ready for both and you better have an answer for both," said Brees, whose 118.1 passer rating leads the league. "In the end, we're going to execute our offense. We're going to take our shots. We're going to try to throw our completions. We're going to try to run the ball effectively.
"We go into every game with the attitude that we're going to dictate the tempo of this game and you're going to have to worry about us and not the other way around."
The Saints, who have not opened 4-0 since 1993, will have to incorporate a new starter into the offensive line after losing two-time Pro Bowl tackle Jamaal Brown to season-ending surgery for a hip injury and a sports hernia.
This will also be the first time Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma plays his former team since the Jets traded him to New Orleans prior to the 2008 season. He has 16 tackles and a sack this year after leading the Saints with 132 tackles last season.
The teams have split 10 all-time meetings, with New Orleans rallying for a 21-19 victory in the most recent game in 2005.
Posted: 9/30/09 10:20PM ET