No linebacker has ever led the NFL in interceptions for a season, and none probably ever will, but Buffalo rookie middle linebacker Kiko Alonso certainly has a pretty good chance to top his position in pickoffs in 2013.
A second-round choice in April, the 46th prospect taken overall and the fifth linebacker selected in this draft, the former University of Oregon star already has four interceptions, twice as many as any other ‘backer in the league, in his first five starts. In fact, no other NFL rookie linebacker yet has a single interception. The four interceptions tie Alonso with a pair of cornerbacks, New England’s Aqib Talib and Alterraun Verner of Tennessee, for the NFL lead.
At this point, Alonso, who was named the league’s defensive rookie of the month for September, has accounted for 13.3 percent of the 30 total linebacker interceptions league-wide. At a time when some of the players chosen ahead of Alonso six months ago are having solid but not spectacular seasons, the Buffalo rookie has thrived.
“He’s just got great straightline speed,” Bills’ strongside linebacker Manny Lawson said of the rookie. “He explodes to the ball.”
There have been other rookie linebackers, however, who timed quicker than Alonso entering the NFL, and several possessed similar burst in their physical skills-sets. He didn’t run at the combine, but clocked a 4.72-second time at his pro day, which was bettered by 10 linebacker prospects at the combine.
So what has made the Bills’ rookie, who has registered four passes defensed in addition to the interceptions and also has a forced fumble, so immediately effective in coverage? Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco, who tossed five “picks” to Buffalo defenders a couple weeks ago, including a pair to Alonso, cited the first-year star’s “length” as a factor and said he is difficult to throw over. Granted at 6-feet-3, Alonso is taller than a lot of the 4-3 middle linebackers in the league, but there are also a few in his height range. His arm length at the combine workouts in February was 32 1/8 inches, and there were 29 of the 35 linebackers at the Indianapolis sessions who measured longer reaches.
It should be noted that Alonso also has 44 tackles, among the top 10 in the NFL, and the most for any rookie defender. It is his coverage skill, though, that clearly has caught the eye of coaches around the league. Not only can Alonso get out into the shorter “flat” and “swing” zones, but he has been very adept at getting depth in the middle of the field and sitting in passing lanes.
To Bills’ defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, it is Alonso’s football instincts and the fact he’s been forced to “play fast,” which have helped set him apart. “His (football) awareness is great,” Pettine said. “He’s got great feel for what’s going on.” Another element that Philadelphia assistant secondary coach Todd Lyght, who was part of the Oregon staff during Alonso’s two seasons as a starter, noted was the fact that the ‘backer practiced every day against an up-tempo offense that threw a lot of looks at the defenders. “He’s seen a lot already . . . and he’s lined up against about everything that you can imagine,” Lyght said.
In his two seasons as an Oregon starter, Alonso demonstrated solid coverage ability, with six interceptions, including four in 2012. But even those impressive numbers didn’t unanimously sell league scouts on his abilities to drop and cover. Yet just a month into his professional career, Alonso is only the fourth linebacker in history to post four September interceptions. He is only the second linebacker in franchise history to have at least four interceptions in a season. In the past 10 seasons, there have been only 10 linebackers with more than four thefts in a year.
There was some uncertainty about where Alonso would project when league scouts evaluated him in the spring. Scouts were split about whether Alonso would be best utilized on the outside or in the middle. But the Bills’ staff pretty much projected him quickly as a “Mike” candidate. Said one team official: “He’s everything you want in (a middle linebacker), really. A lot of guys at the position are two-down players who come off the field on third down. If you get a player who can play there and stay there (on third down), it’s a bonus.”
Notable is that all but one of the linebackers in league history with 30 interceptions or more were middle linebackers for most of their careers. In recent seasons, guys such as London Fletcher and Brian Cushing led the NFL in interceptions by ‘backers from middle or inside spots. It’s awful early in his career to compare Alonso to some of those defenders, but he’s definitely making a splash right now.
AROUND THE LEAGUE
*The Atlanta tag-team of general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith has garnered rave reviews, and deservedly so, during its stint of five-plus seasons together. When the pair arrived, after all, the Falcons were still reeling from the Michael Vick and Bobby Petrino disasters, and were essentially irrelevant even in their own town, and the two piloted the Falcons to playoff berths in four of their first five seasons. But with a 1-4 start, it’s probably fair to nit-pick a bit, even considering the rash of injuries that has beset the team.
Earlier this year, the “Sunday Blitz” noted the failure of the team’s brass to draft and develop a viable pass-rush threat, and to have to rely instead on trade and free agency to supply rushmen. So far this season, the offensive line should merit the same kind of scrutiny. There have been some nettlesome constants with the Falcons – the injuries, “red zone” and third-down conversion failures, not finishing drives or winning close games – but the problems on the offensive line might trump them all. And, frankly, are likely responsible for some of the shortcomings. Dimitroff and Smith made a conscious decision to release right tackle Tyson Clabo and to not try to talk center Todd McClure out of retirement, the way they did tight end Tony Gonzalez. McClure suggested this week that he would have come back for a 15th season, but that he was nudged toward retirement, as the team opted to go with younger players on the line.
But the younger players haven’t worked out. Former second-rounder Peter Konz, who moved over from right guard to replace McClure, has struggled against some of the league’s stronger tackles. Right guard Garrett Reynolds, who lost the starting job each of the past two seasons, likewise has been bullied at times. And second-year tackle Lamar Holmes, a third-round pick in 2012 whom the Falcons appear to have over-drafted, clearly isn’t ready yet for prime time. Holmes, who played only seven snaps as a rookie, began the season at right tackle, then switched to the left side when Sam Baker was injured. To shore up the tackle position, the team was forced to sign journeyman Jeremy Trueblood. The result of the mess: Matt Ryan, the club’s $100 million quarterback has been hit way too often (despite being sacked only eight times), a reality that must make owner Arthur Blank blanch.
In six drafts, Dimitroff and Blank have chosen seven offensive line prospects, and only Baker has played passably well. And some locals would argue that the six-year, $40.85 million extension to which the club signed Baker in the offseason was misplaced largesse. Smith and Dimitroff have done a tremendous job with the Falcons, to be sure, but they’ve made some mistakes as well. And right now, those draft misjudgments are biting the team. Smith last week demined it “preposterous” when asked if the team’s slow start might prompt the Falcons to deal Gonzalez to a Super Bowl contender. We’d employ the same term to any suggestions a continued slide could put Smith and/or Dimitroff in trouble. But it’s certainly fair to cite the “misses” they’ve had on the offensive line.
*There might not be the kind of feeding frenzy for an Oregon game this season as existed at Louisville on Thursday night, when roughly two dozen NFL scouts descended on Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium to eyeball firsthand standout Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. But before the scouts anoint Bridgewater as the top quarterback prospect in the 2014 draft, and perhaps the No. 1 player overall, a lot of talent evaluators want the same kind of chance to scrutinize Oregon’s Marcus Mariota. Bridgewater was “very, very solid,” according to one of the area scouts who attended Thursday night’s victory over Rutgers. But according to the scout, who was reached by NFP at the airport before he boarded a mid-morning flight to go see a Saturday game, the Cardinals’ star “didn’t close the deal, not that I expected him to.” Playing without his top receiver, the injured Davante Parker, Bridgewater threw for 310 yards, his accuracy and velocity were reportedly good, and he demonstrated good pocket presence. But Mariota has created some buzz of late, as has UCLA’s Brett Hundley, and it’s “way, way too early,” the scout said, to declare that a player “is the No. 1 anything right now.”
*Most of the culpability for the New York Giants’ dismal 0-6 start is being laid at the feet of the offense. Or, more accurately, at the right arm of Eli Manning, who’s thrown a horrendous 15 interceptions, already as many as he tossed in all of 2012 and only one fewer than he threw in 2011. The criticism of the unit and of Manning has been earned, for sure. But the New York defense isn’t blameless, particularly a pass rush that has produced only five sacks. In coach Tom Coughlin’s previous nine seasons with the franchise, the Giants never had fewer than 11 sacks after a half-dozen games, and averaged 17.2 sacks in the first six contests. But the consistent pressure that has marked Coughlin’s tenure with the club hasn’t been there, and a lot of people are noting that end Jason Pierre-Paul, who has just one sack, simply isn’t the same player he was only two years ago. In 2011, JPP notched 16.5 sacks. But he fell off to only 6.5 in 2012, and it certainly looks like injuries (back and knee) have caught up to him. In his last 22 outings, Pierre-Paul has only 7.5 sacks, just one in his last 13 games. Two years ago, JPP registered five multiple-sack games. He’s posted only one in the 22 games since. One tackle who played against Pierre-Paul this year suggested to NFP that the former first-rounder is hurting. “He must be,” the tackle said. “The explosiveness isn’t there. With those speed guys, if they’re not (physically) right, they have problems. Even the counter moves that he was starting to develop have fallen off.”
*The defense for New York’s “other” franchise has been solid, especially against the rush, and that’s in large part attributable to a front three that has emerged as one of the NFL’s premier line units. The Jets’ front includes a pair of former first-rounders, Muhammad Wilkerson (2011) and Sheldon Richardson (2013), and they have keyed a resurgence. Wilkerson felt he should have gone to the Pro Bowl a year ago, and he is playing at that level again in 2013. All but two of the members of the Jets’ front seven have three or fewer years of experience, and that bodes well for the defense.
“We feel like we can play with anyone,” linebacker David Harris told NFP after the club’s victory at Atlanta last week. It’s ironic that coach Rex Ryan has been known in some quarters for the pressure his defenses have exerted on quarterbacks. But the reality is that the bodacious Ryan’s defenses have never been great rush units, but historically good versus the run. That’s the case again this year, but New York has actually been good all the way around, as typified by its No. 2 overall ranking. In Ryan’s first three seasons with the franchise, despite twice reaching the conference title game, the Jets were always 28th or worse statistically. Last season, they rose to No. 8, and they’ve really made a jump in 2013.
*Oakland probably won’t win a lot of games, and the Raiders’ streak of non-playoff years likely will extend to 11 seasons, but very quietly one of the bigger surprises of the early portion of this campaign has been the continued progress of third-year veteran quarterback Terrelle Pryor. The former supplemental draft choice has started to demonstrate more touch on his passes, better patience in the pocket, and what one Oakland assistant characterized as “a good sense for game situations.” The maturing of Pryor probably didn’t convince the Raiders to jettison veteran Matt Flynn – the Oakland coaches had already decided he was a mistake – but it might have kept them from going hard after free agent Josh Freeman last week. Oakland offensive coordinator Greg Olson, who coached Freeman in his first three seasons in the league, pushed some for the Raiders to add the former Tampa Bay starter. But the Raiders, brass prefers that Pryor understand he’s the starter, not have to look over his shoulder, and continue his growth pattern. Pryor has the second-most running attempts (37) and rushing yards (229) of any quarterback in the league, but the Raiders’ staff doesn’t feel he’s been too quick to abandon the pocket. His 97.6 passer rating is the eighth best among quarterbacks with at least three starts, and his 8.1-yards per attempt average is very good as well.
“Everyone knew all along he was a great athlete . . . but I always felt, ever since I saw him in his workouts before the (2011) supplemental draft, that he would surprise people with how well he threw the ball,” longtime NFL personnel chief Ken Herock, who still has some ties to the Raiders, told NFP. “There’s something to build on there.” Herock credits former Cincinnati quarterback Ken Anderson, who hasn’t yet reached the “quarterback guru” status of some, but who worked extensively with Pryor in 2011, for providing the youngster a solid base.
*On the subject of quarterback development from the class of 2011 – or, in some cases, lack thereof – the first round from that year certainly isn’t looking too good. Three years into their careers, Cam Newton (No. 1 overall), Jake Locker (No. 8), Blaine Gabbert (No. 10) and Christian Ponder (No. 12) haven’t exactly lit things up, have they? There are some who have seen Carolina’s Newton this season and feel that he has regressed a bit in terms of decision-making and awareness in the pocket. In fairness, Locker has been hurt some for Tennessee, But Gabbert is barely clinging to his job – he won’t play this week because of a hamstring injury and Chad Henne, who will get the start, has taken nearly as many snaps -- and it won’t be surprising if the Jaguars choose a potential replacement in the ’14 draft. Remember, the current Jacksonville leadership group inherited Gabbert from its predecessors, and isn’t as tied to him. Ponder is said to be healthy again, but Matt Cassel is expected to start Sunday for a second game in a row, and the Vikings will shell out a $3 million salary to provide Freeman an audition of sorts over the balance of the season. As noted in last week’s “Sunday Blitz,” the tackle position is gaining some ground on quarterback in the “boom or bust” category. But the 2011 draft, at least in the first round, reminds that quarterback remains the ultimate hit-or-miss position.
*No matter who is throwing the ball in Jacksonville next year, they could have a big-time wide receiver catching it. Second-year veteran Justin Blackmon returned last week from his four-week suspension for violation of the NFL’s substance abuse policy and had a strong game, with five catches for 136 yards. The Jaguars aligned the former Oklahoma State star in at least three different spots, including in the slot, and he demonstrated the strength to “out-physical” defensive backs in all of them. “He’s definitely a handful,” St. Louis cornerback Janoris Jenkins said afterwards. Team officials feel the forced hiatus from the game matured Blackmon as well. “He doesn’t like to sit,” one assistant told NFP, “and, while it was a hard lesson, maybe it’s (a lesson that) will stick.” Although his rookie campaign was regarded by many as disappointing, Blackmon did catch 64 passes for 865 yards and five touchdowns in 2012, well above the average for the last 20 years for first-round wide receivers. In the final four games, he had 25 receptions for 308 yards and two scores.
*Think first-year Kansas City coach Andy Reid didn’t know what he was doing when he essentially hand-picked Alex Smith to be his quarterback in the reclamation project with the Chiefs? Reid knows something, of course, about quarterback play in the NFL, and about the priorities and mentality of the position. And while the former San Francisco starter, and onetime top overall draft pick, probably doesn’t have the raw physical talent of some of Reid’s starters at Philadelphia, neither does he bring some of the same baggage as did Donovan McNabb or Michael Vick. Smith ranks only about the middle of the league pack in passer rating (83.7) and his completion mark (58.4 percent) is fairly mundane in a league where a minimum 60 percent has become the new normal, but the guy is a winner, teammates and coaches agree. And he’s basically “got no ego,” one Kansas City defensive veteran told NFP. Smith is 24-5-1 in his last 30 starts and has clearly made a difference for the Chiefs on the field and in the locker room as well.
*Offensive left tackle Eugene Monroe didn’t play for Baltimore last week after being acquired from the Jaguars in a trade. But the former first-rounder, who most observers feel will upgrade the Ravens at the line’s most critical spot, worked with the first unit all week and almost certainly will make his first start on Sunday against Green Bay. The consensus in the league is that general manager Ozzie Newsome made a wise deal in netting Monroe for fourth- and fifth-round picks, especially since the Ravens figure to earn several compensatory choices in ’14. One key will be whether Baltimore can retain Monroe, who is eligible for free agency next spring. . . . The Ravens, by the way, are starting to stress the run game more again, as tailback Ray Rice returns to health. One team scout acknowledged that the Ravens had “maybe become a little too (enamored)” of the pass, and had gone away some from their usual mix. . . . Despite his contention that it was a “difficult” decision last week to stick with struggling quarterback Matt Schaub for Sunday’s game against St. Louis, folks in Houston contend that coach Gary Kubiak did not agonize as much as he insisted he did. For all his “pick six” foibles, Schaub still gives the Texans the best chance to reverse their slide. . . . Giants’ second-year wide receiver Rueben Randle already has more receptions and yards, and just as many touchdowns, as he did in 16 games in 2012. But the former LSU star hasn’t been as sharp in his route-running and route conversions as he was as a rookie, and that’s hurt the New York offense. . . . As noted above in regards to Bridgewater, league scouts aren’t going to start drawing conclusions about 2014 draft prospects in October, but to suggest that South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney hasn’t commanded some negative attention with his injury and attitude problems would be a mistake. Scouts definitely have taken notice of Clowney’s performances on and off the field in the first month-plus of the season. . . . Smith no doubt has been the Chiefs’ most valuable offensive player, but it’s notable that tailback Jamaal Charles is the only player in the NFL to lead his team in rushing attempts and yards, and receptions and receiving yards. . . . Representatives for the deposed Flynn, who’s earned a ton of money the past two years for a guy who has started just one game and been tossed aside by two franchises, are calling around the league to try to generate interest. They’ve gotten a couple nibbles, but nothing solid yet. . . . It will be interesting to see if the injury-ravaged Falcons get walking wounded tailback Steven Jackson back on the field after their bye this week. Jackson, who has missed the past 3.5 games because of a hamstring/thigh injury, missed only two games with the Rams the past four seasons. But there are some in St. Louis who privately contend Jackson was a slower healer than advertised, and that he often felt his production was impacted by playing hurt. Some of those same critics note that Jackson has insisted he will not return to the Atlanta lineup until 100 percent.
BY THE NUMBERS
*In completing 18 of 23 passes for 221 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions, in last week’s 27-17 victory over San Diego, Terrelle Pryor registered a 135.7 quarterback rating. It represented the highest single-game rating for an Oakland starter since Rich Gannon posted a 138.9 mark in a Sept. 29, 2002 game against Tennessee. The streak in between those two contests: A staggering 177 games. During the streak, Oakland starters compiled ratings of 100 or more just 34 times, with Gannon and Carson Palmer notching seven each among the 11 quarterbacks who accomplished the feat. But, remarkably, Raiders’ starters actually had more games (38) with quarterback ratings under 50 during the streak.