Malcolm Jenkins is starting to play more like the five-time Pro Bowl safety he replaced in New Orleans' starting lineup.
Jenkins intercepted two passes near the Saints' goal line and returned one of them 96 yards for his first career touchdown in the Saints' 31-13 win over the St. Louis Rams on Sunday.
It was a performance reminiscent of Darren Sharper, who missed the Saints' first six games as he recovered from knee surgery, opening the way for Jenkins to earn a starting spot in his second season out of Ohio State.
"I'm still learning," Jenkins said. "This is the first game I had an interception all year and there was plenty of opportunities in the previous games. But there's always stuff to learn and I think I'm starting to definitely understand a lot more than I have."
The Saints (10-3) took the early lead because of a fast start by Drew Brees, who completed 13 of his first 15 passes and threw two of his three touchdown passes in the first quarter to Marques Colston.
Jenkins' big defensive plays made the lead stand up. His touchdown came right after the Rams had recovered Courtney Roby's fumble on a kickoff return, giving St. Louis the ball at the New Orleans 21, in prime position to cut into what was then a 14-6 lead.
Instead, Jenkins made it 21-6 at halftime, and his second-half interception squelched any hope the Rams had of coming back. Jenkins, who was a cornerback in college, was playing nickel back during his second interception while Sharper was on the field at safety.
"I'm not saying he's the second coming (of me). He's going to be the first coming of Malcolm Jenkins," Sharper said. "He's going to be a future multi-Pro Bowler. He works real hard and absorbs anything I try to tell him, but he has the ability. He can play corner and safety and make plays at both positions."
Rams rookie Sam Bradford scored the only St. Louis touchdown on a short keeper after the game was out of reach. He passed for 231 yards but his day was marred by the two interceptions deep in Saints territory.
"I've got to be better when we're down there and I've got to be smarter with the football," Bradford said. "I just can't make those mistakes."
Jenkins said he got a good jump on the first pass he intercepted, but also noted that Bradford "didn't put much velocity on it, so it kind of hung up a little bit."
Steven Jackson rushed for 96 yards but turned the ball over once on a fumble caused by Roman Harper and recovered by Jabari Greer, stalling a promising drive across midfield.
"The message to the team was that if you don't protect the football and you don't tackle well on defense, it's hard to beat any team, let alone one of the best in the league," Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo said.
Although the Rams (6-7) fell below .500, they remained in a first-place tie in the NFC West with Seattle (6-7), which lost at San Francisco.
That means St. Louis could conceivably host New Orleans in the first round of the playoffs if the Rams hold on to win their division and the Saints are unable to surpass Atlanta (11-2) in the NFC West.
"I know there's plenty of scenarios," said Brees, who was 25 of 40 for 221 yards and was intercepted twice. "That's just the way it goes sometimes and we can't worry about that."
If that matchup pans out, the Saints will have to like their chances, even on the road.
The Saints rushed for 132 yards as a team, helped by the return of Pierre Thomas, who had missed the last nine games with a sprained left ankle. Thomas rushed for 39 yards and had 29 receiving.
"I was surprised to get as many touches as I did, but I knew they were going to test me and see if I was ready," Thomas said. "The ankle wasn't giving me any problems. I felt great out there. A lot of guys said I was moving real good."
Rookie Chris Ivory rushed for 47 yards in the first half before his right hamstring got tight and he was rested for the remainder of the game.
The Saints converted 10 of their first 12 third-down plays en route to a 28-6 third-quarter lead. St. Louis failed to convert its first eight third downs and finished 1 of 11.
The Saints sacked Bradford twice on blitzes and repeatedly pressured him into rushed, inaccurate throws.
Notes: Steven Jackson has 1,081 rushing yards and is the first player in franchise history to rush for at least 1,000 yards in six consecutive seasons. ... Roby was taken off the field on a stretcher and brought to a hospital for observation after his fumble. Saints officials said he had feeling in his extremities and was alert. ... Spagnuolo said reserve linebacker David Nixon had a hand injury and that X-rays would be taken to determine if it was broken. ... With his second TD catch of the game, Colston became the fifth Saint to reach 40 career touchdowns. ... The Rams' three turnovers matched their combined total for their previous seven games. ... Brees has thrown an interception in nine straight games and his 18 on the season have tied his career high set in 2007.