The record book says that Buffalo Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso made his first NFL play at the 6:47 mark in the first quarter of a Week 1 game against New England—recording a stop on a one-yard gain by Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount.
It turns out, however, that he made an impact before that moment, going stride-for-stride in coverage on running back Shane Vereen, who was running a flare pattern in the flat. New England's explosive scat back has been a mismatch in such situations before, but Alonso's coverage helped give the pass-rush more time to get to the quarterback.
This speaks to a larger truth about Alonso's impact on the defense: it is being felt, even when it's not necessarily being seen or showing up on the stat sheet. Perhaps, that should be the basis for the #LegendOfKikoAlonso: quietly contributing, both on and off the field.
"I think he's kind of clueless [about things] that are going on about the tweeting and things like that," head coach Doug Marrone said, via ESPN.com's Mike Rodak, referencing the now-popular hashtag based around Alonso's quick start. "He was like, 'I don't even know what you're talking about.' He's focused."
He's had more opportunities than any other player on the defense, but his 100 percent participation, in and of itself, is a testament to his status as the keystone of the Bills defense.
Plenty of linebackers play all three downs, but not all of them are truly three-down linebackers or a jack-of-all-trades like Alonso.
Alonso is a rare breed, with the toughness, instincts and athleticism to make plays in both the running game and passing game. CBS Sports' scouting report on Alonso coming out of college tells you all you need to know about his versatile skill set:
Highly instinctive defender despite his relative inexperience. Gets a jump on the ball and shows terrific straight-line speed, agility and a burst to close. Possesses long, strong arms to make the wrap-up tackle and flashes explosive hitting ability.
Good flexibility and balance when dropping back into coverage and has the athleticism to handle responsibilities in man coverage. Good awareness in zone and possesses good hand-eye coordination and ball skills, overall. Surprisingly stout at the line of scrimmage, using his arm length and flexibility to get under the pads of blockers and create a pile for teammates to close on the football.
Simply speaking: he is a threat to make plays, no matter the situation.
It should come as little surprise, then, that he's wasted little time in following through on that threat.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he has missed just four tackles this season and is the seventh-most efficient tackling interior linebacker in the league.
He has allowed the fewest receptions per snap into his coverage, and his 61.9 coverage rating is the fifth-best for any inside linebacker. His four interceptions are tied with 21 other players for sixth-most in NFL history through four games, per Pro-Football-Reference.
He has the athleticism to hold up in man coverage, but he is mostly used in zone coverage, where his sharp instincts and great vision help him make plays on the ball—like this interception off Jets quarterback Geno Smith.
Alonso (circled in red) dropped into a hook zone in the short area, with the secondary playing man coverage with a single-high safety. Smith wanted to attack the middle, either with the post by the slot receiver or the slant by Clyde Gates.
Smith went with the slant, but Alonso had already started to break on the ball before Smith had even thrown it. He then stepped in front of the pass and picked it off with ease.
The #LegendOfKikoAlonso lives on. Sometimes, you just have to see it to understand it.
Alonso also landed on the highlight reel for his leaping goal-line tackle against Browns running back Willis McGahee. He didn't bring down the running back on his own, but his presence slowed down McGahee's forward progress, and allowed Alonso's teammates to join him in making the play.
There are few things that say "leadership" better than putting his body on the line for the betterment of the team.
Of course, a leader doesn't just show up on Sunday, though. He has to be there Monday through Saturday as well.
"When he came in, right away it was like he's moving a lot faster than everybody else," Marrone said, via Jay Skurski of The Buffalo News. "Our expectations are high and we're excited about him. He's actually getting better and better each week, too, all little things that maybe people can't see."
A leader also doesn't always have to lead loudly, and, as pointed out by Aaron Fentress of The Oregonian, Alonso is quiet by nature.
"He's a little soft-spoken," said linebacker Manny Lawson, "but it's a lot of fun being out there with him, especially now that he's starting to open up a little bit more."
He has to be vocal, to an extent. He wears the green dot helmet for radio communication with the coaching staff, meaning that he makes the calls and checks on the field. As a result, he is responsible for communicating with the entire defense—linebackers, defensive linemen and safeties—and he must know all of the assignments for the entire defense on any given play.
As he learns more about the defense, about the game and about his opponents, Alonso will be just as effective with his sharp football intelligence as he already has been with his body. While one former AFC scout raves about Alonso's game, he also wonders whether Alonso has room to grow in his new role.
"He has good instincts and coverage ability," the former AFC scout said, "but he's not the guy you want running your defense. He did it earlier in his career, but it proved to be too much for him. He has some past issues, but he has overcome them and turned things around. I'm not surprised he's doing well. I think the Bills are using him the right way, and letting him play. He should be around for a long time."
Maybe Alonso will grow in his role as a vocal leader when he's beyond his rookie year; it's easy to see why he'd be apprehensive about holding guys accountable as a rookie. That being said, he could be the player his teammates look to for inspiration in short order, at this rate.
The best way he can lead, for now, is by example. He's played every single snap on defense this season, he leads the league in tackles and interceptions, he's putting in the work during the week, he has command of the huddle and the defense, and he puts his body on the line week-in and week-out for his team. The example is set.
Alonso is an emotional, physical and mental leader for the Bills defense. As a rookie, there's literally nothing more you could ask for.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.
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