ORCHARD PARK – So, there was Kiko Alonso in early February, sitting in the living room of his parents house in Los Gatos, Calif., watching in high-def as Joe Flacco led the Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl victory over the San Francisco 49ers.
And, here he was Sunday afternoon, eight months later, standing across the line from this same Joe Flacco near mid-field at the Ralph, close enough to smell what the veteran quarterback had consumed for breakfast.
Most rookie linebackers would have been quaking in their cleats as they tried to stop a march by a seasoned signal-caller who has been in these comeback situations many times before.
But it’s apparent through the first four games of his NFL career that Kiko Alonso is not like most rookies. In fact, through the quarter pole of this season, the Bills second-round draft pick from the University of Oregon has staked his claim as the league’s defensive rookie of the year.
He certainly would have Flacco’s vote after making two interceptions – including a spectacular, diving grab of a tipped pass with 57 seconds remaining to preserve the Bills 23-20 upset of the Ravens.
They were two of five picks against Flacco. (Aaron Williams also had two and Jim Leonhard one). The sterling performance gives Alonso four interceptions, second most in Bills history by a rookie linebacker, and takeaways in each of his NFL games, a streak of turnovers he says he has never enjoyed at any level of football, including Pop Warner.
Alonso is a wiry 6-foot-3, 238-pounder with cat-like quickness who’s always around the ball. He plays all out, all the time and is savvy beyond his years. On his first interception, he came out of nowhere and swooped in front of a receiver at the last nano-second. Flacco never saw him. The veteran was out-foxed by the rookie on the play.
Alonso played against NFL-style passing offenses in the Pac-12 Conference almost every Saturday. Which is why the Bills seemed comfortable putting him into a starting role from the start.
He has met the challenge with panache so far. The stage hasn’t been too big, even when it was occupied by the defending champs.
“Every game for us is a Super Bowl,’’ he said, shrugging his shoulders when asked about beating the defending champs. “At least that’s how I look at it. Every game, no matter who we’re playing, that’s how we’ve got to prepare.”
On the game’s decisive play, Flacco tried to force a pass over the middle to Dallas Clark. Both safety Da’Norris Searcy and Alonso anticipated the call. Searcy tipped the ball into the air. Alonso dived for it like Superman and grabbed it as he crashed to the ground. The replay official reviewed it to make sure Alonso had possession of the ball. The play stood, and the Bills ran out the clock on a thriller.
“Every game is like a roller coaster,’’ Alonso said. “There’s going to be ups and downs. We’ve got to keep fighting until the end.”
They did Sunday, despite fielding an injury-depleted secondary that saw Williams make a successful conversion from safety to cornerback and that saw Leonhard play a solid centerfield.
There are sure to be more ups and downs for this young football team.
But there will be more ups than downs for Alonso, who’s the best playmaking linebacker the Bills have suited up since Takeo Spikes nearly a decade ago.
OFFENSE: EJ Manuel had an excellent first half and a not so good second-half, finishing with a touchdown, two picks and a lost fumble. He is beginning to develop a nice rapport with fellow rookie Robert Woods, who caught four passes for 80 yards, including a 42-yard touchdown on a great throw down the middle of the field. Fred Jackson had 87 yards and C.J. Spiller 77 as the Bills gained 203 against the league’s fourth-rated run defense. Those rushing totals would have been even more impressive had it not been for four costly penalties by the offensive line, including two against normally dependable center Eric Wood. GRADE: B
DEFENSE: Bills did a superb job vs. the run, limiting Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce to 24 yards in nine carries, a 2.7 per carry average. Although Joe Flacco did pass for 347 yards and two scores, he was picked off five times by a decimated secondary. Justin Rogers was burned again for two TDs, but played much better than he against the Jets. GRADE: B-plus
SPECIAL TEAMS: Marcus Easley continues to excel on kick and punt coverage. He had two more tackles inside the 20. Dan Carpenter has been a great insurance policy for the Bills, hitting three more field goals Sunday, giving him 10 of 11 for the season in place of injured rookie Dustin Hopkins. Shawn Powell had three punts inside the 20, but also shanked a kick during crunch time.
OVERALL: This was a big win against a stout defense and a quarterback who is the reigning Super Bowl MVP. It’s going to be a tough turnaround for the banged-up Bills, who have a Thursday night game in Cleveland. Spiller has an ankle injury and might not be ready. Give rookie Bills coach Doug Marrone credit. Buffalo is 2-2 after the first quarter of the season. That’s not bad for such a young team that has dealt with a ton of injuries so far. GRADE: B