New York Jets safety Jim Leonhard avoids a tackle by...

New York Jets safety Jim Leonhard avoids a tackle by Cincinnati Bengals guard Clint Boling, right, after intercepting a pass during the first quarter. (Aug. 21, 2011) Credit: AP

The errant pass landed right in his hands, with lots of green ahead of him.

Jim Leonhard picked off an overthrown pass by Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton with 7:29 to go in the first quarter and began dodging tacklers with ease. Leonhard's 35-yard return -- his most significant defensive play since breaking his tibia in December -- put an exclamation point on a feel-good first quarter for the Jets' secondary in a 27-7 victory over the Bengals Sunday night at New Meadowlands Stadium.

"This is how we're going to win football games," Leonhard said. "We always feel like we're a defensive team. As long as Rex is here, that's going to be our calling card."

While much of the night's attention was focused on Plaxico Burress' debut, the Jets' defense set the tone and had three interceptions. Four minutes into the game, safety Eric Smith intercepted a short pass that was bobbled by wide receiver A.J. Green at the Bengals' 45. Smith ran 7 yards and smartly lateraled to cornerback Darrelle Revis, who went 22 yards up the soggy sideline.

"I saw him stumbling and I said, 'Eric, pitch it back,' " Revis said. "But I didn't know he was going to pitch it back until he actually made the look and I was like, 'Oh, I'm getting the ball!' "

Smith, who said the defensive backs coaches have emphasized getting more turnovers this season, didn't seem too impressed with his move. "I ran the option in high school, so it's like riding a bike," he said with a smile.

Smith's play set up the first Jets touchdown, Mark Sanchez's 16-yard pass to Santonio Holmes.

Later, Leonhard was in prime position to snag Dalton's misguided throw to Andre Caldwell on the Cincinnati 45. And the broken right leg that forced him to miss five regular-season games and the Jets' run to the AFC Championship Game carried Leonhard to the Cincinnati 10.

"I feel like I'm back," he said. "It took probably about a week into camp before I finally got my legs back under me and it's starting to feel very comfortable. There's no pain or anything, so I'm not even thinking about it anymore."

Leading 20-7 late in the third quarter, Brashton Satele, a second-year linebacker, picked off backup Bengals quarterback Bruce Gradkowski and returned it 32 yards to the 4-yard line, setting up the final Jets TD.

More Jets