EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — As he changed at his locker Sunday, Saints linebacker Junior Galette exhaled dejectedly and shook his head while listing off all that he and the rest of his team had done wrong carrying out the game plan against the New York Jets.
His offensive teammates committed numerous penalties. They executed crucial plays poorly, and quarterback Drew Brees tossed two interceptions that led to 10 Jets points.
But Galette believed the Saints could have overcome all of that if he and the rest of the defense could do two things: Stop the run and force the Jets’ rookie, turnover-prone quarterback to make plays.
They did neither.
Jets running back Chris Ivory gained an average of almost 8 yards each of the 18 times he carried the ball. Ivory, who spent three seasons with the Saints before being traded to New York this April, finished with 139 of the Jets’ 198 rushing yards, the most New Orleans has given up this year.
Meanwhile, Geno Smith needed just 115 yards on 8-of-19 passing to help the Jets beat the Saints 26-20. The rookie rushed in the only score he had a hand in.
“We didn’t give ourselves a chance,” Galette said. “(Smith) had — what, 120 yards passing, maybe, if that? We had to stop the run.”
Because they didn’t stop it, it was easy for Smith — who has been responsible for 16 of his team’s 17 turnovers — to avoid surrendering the ball once to New Orleans, which had created 15 takeaways its first seven games and had owned a plus-8 turnover differential, one of the best in the NFL.
“We knew ... they were going to try to take this game away from their rookie quarterback,” said Galette, who had one of two sacks on Smith, neither of which resulted in any loss of yardage. “We had to stop the run.”
But plenty more also factored into a defeat that has reduced New Orleans’ lead in the NFC South to one game over Carolina, which improved to 5-3 with a 34-10 rout of Atlanta.
The Saints (6-2) lost one of their main offensive weapons, running back Darren Sproles, to a concussion in the first quarter, during which they also used all three of their opening-half timeouts.
They were penalized nine times for 59 yards. Seven of them were on offense, and four of them were before the ball was snapped. They gained just 41 yards on 13 rushes.
Even worse were the interceptions. The Saints fell behind 3-0 when Brees threw a pass behind tight end Benjamin Watson. Jets safety Dawan Landry tipped the pass up and into the grasp of linebacker Demario Davis at New Orleans’ 48, setting up a 39-yard field goal by Jets kicker Nick Folk, who made all four of his attempts Sunday.
Brees recovered on the next drive. On first-and-10 from New Orleans’ 49, he threw a deep pass that Graham caught outside the Jets’ 5. Jets safety Jaiquawn Jarrett was covering Graham and tried to drag him down from behind, but the Saints tight end lugged himself and his defender into the end zone to give New Orleans a 7-3 lead.
Graham in the second quarter caught another score from Brees, a 10-yard pass that was his 10th TD this year and helped put New Orleans ahead 14-6. Graham, who had nine grabs for 116 yards, needs one more TD to match the career high he set in 2011.
But then, with a little over two minutes left in the second quarter, Brees threw his second pick, which he called “the real critical one.” After Ivory had scored on a 3-yard TD run to cut New Orleans’ lead to 14-13, Brees threw a short pass to receiver Nick Toon, who inadvertently popped the ball high into the air with his hands.
Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie snagged the rebound at the Saints’ 39. On the ensuing possession, Smith ran in a 3-yard TD to help give the Jets (5-4) a 20-14 lead.
“We were in a situation where we were on our way to at least get a field goal or maybe more, and they go down and get a touchdown,” said Brees, who was 30-of-51 for 382 yards and was sacked twice for a loss of 16 yards. “Certainly it was a seven-point swing, and maybe it’s a 10- or 14-point one.”
Jets coach Rex Ryan praised his team’s opportunism. Before Sunday, it had created only five turnovers.
“It was really outstanding,” said Ryan, who beat his twin, Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, a fifth time in as many tries in the NFL. “We’ve been waiting all year to create some turnovers.”
In the second half, the Saints managed just six points off field goals of 55 and 43 yards from Garrett Hartley. While the longer one was a career best, Hartley might not celebrate much: He missed a 43-yarder in the first quarter and was fresh off a pair of misses in a Week 8 win over Buffalo.
Folk answered with his own kicks from 47 and 45 yards to cap the Jets’ scoring. But what the Saints may rue most are two fourth-quarter sequences that vividly illustrated their struggles in MetLife Stadium.
On one, New Orleans got the ball at its 19 with 1:58 left, down by six. Brees threw four incompletions; center Brian De La Puente drew a holding call; and the Saints turned the ball over on downs to the Jets, who drained the clock.
The other was earlier in the quarter. Down 26-17 and facing third-and-1 from New York’s 36, Brees tried to find fullback Jed Collins for a short pass that would’ve resulted in a first down. Collins dropped the ball, jeopardizing a drive that already had been complicated by an illegal use of hands penalty on guard Ben Grubbs.
Then on fourth-and-1, coach Sean Payton dialed up an end-around for rookie tight end Josh Hill. The play didn’t fool Jets linebacker Quinton Coples, who dropped Hill for a loss of 8 and denied the Saints a valuable scoring opportunity.
Hill said New Orleans had no doubt what play it would run if confronted with those circumstances.
“It didn’t come out how we expected,” he said. “(But) that was the situation we wanted to use it in.”
Added Payton: “It was a short-yardage call we felt comfortable with. They made a good play on it. They stayed at home.”