There has been one constant on the Buffalo Bills’ defense this season.
That is rookie middle linebacker Kiko Alonso.
The Bills’ second-round draft pick out of Oregon has taken every one of the team’s 170 defensive snaps through the first two weeks, the only player on defense to do so.
Alonso’s effort in Sunday’s 24-23 win over the Carolina Panthers at Ralph Wilson Stadium was a tour de force. He finished with 10 tackles, one sack, one interception and one pass defensed.
“I came in here just wanting to help the team win,” said the soft-spoken 23-year-old from Los Gatos, Calif. “The team put me in a position to do that, which is great. I’m just trying to make the most of it.”
Alonso’s 19 tackles through the first two games ranks tied for eighth in the NFL prior to Monday night’s game, and is the most among the league’s rookies.
“He has the ability to be a three-down player and we saw that early on,” Bills coach Doug Marrone said. “I think that’s what we’re getting out of him.”
The Bills’ faith in Alonso has been apparent since April, when they selected him in the second round of the NFL Draft, 46th overall. That’s a round or two higher than most draft projections had Alonso going – not that he paid any attention to those.
“I didn’t think anything of it. I wasn’t hoping for a round. Wherever I went, I just knew I was going to go to work every day and try to get better,” Alonso said. “I had a sense I was going to get drafted. I wasn’t worried about which round. The first round would have been nice with that money, but everyone’s getting the same opportunity to play.”
Alonso has been a starter seemingly from the time the Bills called his name on draft night. After he was selected, the team traded last year’s starter in the middle, Kelvin Sheppard, to Indianapolis for pass rusher Jerry Hughes.
Alonso’s ability to play against both the run and the pass was on display Sunday against Carolina. Because of that, he’s become an indispensable part of the defense.
His pursuit of the ball is best described as relentless.
“You know, I’m just giving my best effort, honestly,” he said. “That’s always how I’ve played.”
Alonso’s first career sack came on the final play of the game. With the Panthers trying to set up a desperation Hail Mary, he came in on a slightly delayed blitz from the right side, blowing by left tackle Jordan Gross and bringing Cam Newton down.
“You have to be versatile. You have to be able to cover somebody, you have to be able to rush the passer, you have to be able to blitz,” fellow linebacker Manny Lawson said of Alonso. “He’s a very versatile middle linebacker. He’s always somewhere around the ball.”
Alonso recorded his first career interception in the first quarter Sunday. Drifting to his left in coverage on the snap, he perfectly read the eyes of Newton, the Panthers’ quarterback, and made a diving pick of a pass intended for Brandon LaFell.
“He threw it right to me,” Alonso said.
Lawson, however, said the play wasn’t nearly as simple as Alonso made it sound.
“For him to have that focus and that composure, and then have the hands to actually grab the ball and secure it … that’s just a great play. It was a great diving catch.”
One of Alonso’s jobs as the team’s middle linebacker is to communicate the team’s defensive calls. It’s a role Marrone says the player is still growing into.
“There’s still things that we have to improve on,” the coach said. “As a young player, his communication to the rest of the defense is extremely important. I think that’s something that will just get better each week.”
After his first two games, Alonso’s ceiling is reaching new heights.
“We still need to get a lot better, starting with practice on Wednesday,” he said.