For a team that has a new coaching staff, a rookie quarterback starting (when healthy), and their best offensive player CJ Spiller battling injuries most of the year, the Bills have battled through a rough 8 game schedule, ending with 4 wins and just 4 points away from being first in the AFC East.
Despite not consistently showing in the stat-line, much of that credit falls on the defense’s success to keep scores close late in games and give whomever is playing quarterback a chance to cement a win. And even though the defense boasts former first rounders Marcell Darus, Mario Williams, Leodis McKelvin, and Stephon Gilmore, it’s rookie Kiko Alonso that has solidified this defense and been the leader this team has needed.
Thanks to discipline, injury, and off the field concerns, the talented Alonso was ranked as our #7 inside linebacker. Here’s what our pre-draft scouting report on Alonso had to say from his time at Oregon:
“Alonso is might be best suited for 4-3 outside linebacker position because he lacks the instincts and technique to take on blocks up the middle and diagnose. He loves to disrupt the backfield. Coaches can get creative with him, but if he stays inside its best he does as a weakside middle 'backer. Alonso has injury concerns, spending the 2010 rehabbing a knee injury.
He was suspended that season for a DUI arrest and sat out the 2011 season opener after being arrested for burglary and trespassing. Teams will like his intensity and active play but must decide if he's willing to remain disciplined off the field as well as on the field, where he must become a more cerebral player.”
Alonso has seized his opportunity this year as the Bills middle linebacker, producing early in the season and quickly forcing teams to gameplan around his talents. Showcasing the ability to both attack upfield in run support as well as dip into short area coverage, Alonso’s season stat-line boasts 81 total tackles, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble, and 4 interceptions.
As an inside linebacker, his primary responsibilities are to collapse any hole openings in the interior, finish tackles in the B-gaps (outside the guards), and be efficient in his coverage drops to limit drag routes/interior hitch routes. With one of the most explosive first and second steps in run support, Alonso has been able to finish tackles consistently in the middle of the field. He finds gaps between blockers very well, adjust his body and staying low effectively. And, maybe more importantly for a young linebacker, he’s willing to stay true to his run fits and embrace contact to free up another linebacker. He could use his hands better with improved initial inside placement to potential escape blockers smoother.
In the play below, you can see Alonso’s decisive read steps and explosive burst to shoot past his expected blocker to make a play in the backfield in run support. While this is certainly in Alonso’s area to make a play on the ball carrier, notice how easily he brushes off a potential blocker to finish the play for a minimal gain.
And in this play, you can see Alonso make his first read step to the playside, then take a long, explosive second step to attack the backfield and finish the tackle for a loss. Against most front sevens, the blocking gets far enough upfield to open a crease for the running back and allows for an alley on the outside. But it’s Alonso’s second step that forces the runner to hesitate and be dragged down for a loss.
As stated earlier, one of Alonso’s college concerns was his lack of discipline in his running lanes in pursuit, especially at the second level. While his discipline has improved since his time at Oregon (likely thanks to playing closer to the line on many occasions with the Bills), it’s still an issue he needs to continue to work on. In the play below, he tries to sneak under his blockers grasp, but instead leaves a gaping hole for Pierre Thomas to run through.
Kiko Alonso is the leader in the “Defensive Rookie of the Year” clubhouse, and based on his successes so far this year, it’d be a surprise if he didn’t end up with the award. He’s shown the ability to be effective in running plays in the box, attack on the perimeter, rush the passer efficiently, and dip in coverage in the short area. He’s shown everything and more that the Bills hoped they’d get when the drafted him 46th overall.
Alonso, like any rookie, has areas where he can still improve, and based on his progression from his Oregon film until last week’s game against the Saints, he’s taking in what the Bills coaching staff is feeding him. And if he can continue to grow as a leader and linebacker, he’ll likely have more trophies in his future.