BBD Editor: Dan Hope
On the field for every Buffalo Bills defensive play in 2013, Kiko Alonso won’t see a single snap in 2014.
Bills general manager Doug Whaley announced Tuesday night that linebacker Kiko Alonso, the Pro Football Writers of America’s choice for Defensive Rookie of the Year last season, suffered a knee injury while working out in Oregon.
“We do not have the details at this point, but early indications are that it might be significant,” Whaley said of Alonso’s knee injury in his statement.
Both ESPN’s Adam Schefter and NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport have reported that Alonso has a torn ACL. Should that be the official diagnosis, Alonso will almost certainly be placed on season-ending injured reserve.
Literally an every-down player as Buffalo’s middle linebacker in 2013, Alonso was set to move to weakside linebacker this season as the Bills move to a 4-3 based defensive scheme under new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. What almost certainly wasn’t going to change, however, was Alonso’s status as the star and leader of the Bills’ linebacker group.
Much like Deandre Levy had emerged as a star as the Detroit Lions’ weakside linebacker when Schwartz was their head coach, Alonso was still going to be the premier player for Buffalo at the second level. There would have been no reason for Alonso, Buffalo’s rangiest linebacker and best coverage player at the position by a wide margin, not to continue being the mainstay of the team’s defense.
Look closely at the Bills’ personnel additions at linebacker this offseason, and you can see how the team was building around Alonso for their new defense. They brought in two “thumpers” to play middle linebacker with free agent signing Brandon Spikes and third-round draft pick Preston Brown, while they added another veteran free agent, Keith Rivers, to play strongside linebacker.
None of those players, nor any other linebacker on the Bills roster, has the skill set to simply step in Alonso’s shoes and play his role. Taking Alonso out of the lineup will force Buffalo to overhaul its strategy at linebacker, which in turn could impact the entire Bills defense.
The most likely candidate to start at weakside linebacker is Nigel Bradham, a decent player who has started 13 games over the past two seasons. He isn’t nearly the explosive playmaker or athlete
that Alonso is, but he should at least be able to hold his own on run defense.
The player to watch could be Ty Powell, who played sparingly last season as a rookie but is the most similar player to Alonso, in regards to his physical attributes and abilities as a pass defender, on the Bills roster. He’s seemingly the strongest candidate, despite going undrafted in 2013 and playing just 15 snaps last year, to take over what would have been Alonso’s position in the nickel defense.
Buffalo could also seek to add a lingering veteran on the free agent market, such as Erin Henderson, who is an unsigned player due to off-field issues but played for new Bills linebackers coach Fred Pagac with the Minnesota Vikings.
Regardless of who the Bills give more playing time to in Alonso’s absence, there’s nothing close to a clear solution. It’s unlikely that Buffalo will have any linebacker playing in an every-down capacity, and while Spikes and Brown give them options in the middle against the run, their coverage linebacker options for defensive sub-packages are severely limited.
One way the Bills could compensate for their lack of nickel linebacker options is to use more dime looks, with strong safety Da’Norris Searcy playing a hybrid “star” linebacker role. Even if Searcy wins the team’s starting job at that position, the Bills could insert Duke Williams, Jonathan Meeks or Corey Graham to play safety in sub-packages.
It’s unknown whether Schwartz will even consider incorporating hybrid, 3-4-based looks into the Bills defense this year, but the Alonso injury could present incentive to do so. Even if they don’t, Alonso’s injury could give Buffalo reason for Manny Lawson, who is set to move to defensive end in the 4-3, to continue playing linebacker in some situations.
If there’s any positive to be taken away from Alonso’s injury happening now, it’s at least better than if he had suffered a season-ending injury later in the preseason, as the Bills will at least have their entire training camp and preseason to experiment and figure out how they can carry on without their second-year phenom.
Nonetheless, it’s unlikely that the Bills will reach any solution that fully rectifies the problem created by losing Alonso.
Buffalo will be forced to divide its assignment responsibility more evenly among its linebacker corps, as the team will no longer have a “do-everything” type at the position who is capable of making plays from one sideline to the other.
The injury also puts more pressure on the rest of the Bills defense to perform. The unit might actually improve up the middle against the run, as Spikes and Brown will give them a thumping presence at the position that Alonso did not in 2013, but teams will certainly look to exploit the linebacker weakness with passing plays and outside runs, which makes it all the more important that Buffalo’s defensive line generates pressure and its defensive backs handle their assignments with discipline.