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Eagle Eye: How Alonso Fits In The 'D'

Posted Mar 10, 2015

The linebacker position is one of the most talked about positions in all of sports, and with good reason. What other position better represents everything that football fans want from their team? Tough. Nasty. Athletic. Relentless. These are words you want to say when you’re talking about players on your favorite team. When you look at new Eagles linebacker Kiko Alonso, these are words that definitely come to mind, and in today’s piece I thought we’d do something a little different and look at the tape to give a full scouting report on one of the Eagles’ new defensive centerpieces after a trade with the Buffalo Bills.

One of the most cerebral positions in football, the linebacker position requires players who think quickly, see things before they happen and react instantly to what they see. Instincts and football intelligence are of the utmost importance to playing this position, and when you’re watching linebackers you can pick up how they see the game in a number of ways. Does he quickly distinguish if the play is a run or pass? Does he move efficiently when he’s making his initial read on an inside or outside run play? Can he diagnose screens and take the receiver out of the equation? These are areas in which Alonso excels and which were apparent in every game that I watched when I studied his rookie season.

On this second down play against the Jacksonville Jaguars, look how quickly (even before I draw the arrow) Alonso recognizes the screen and takes the throw away from quarterback Chad Henne, who is forced to kill the play and throw the ball into the dirt.

These plays popped up week in and week out as I continued to watch Alonso, as he brings down Jamaal Charles for a four-yard loss in this game against Kansas City.

This time of year, a lot of people talk about things like ‘play speed’ and ‘transition quickness’ and ‘functional athleticism.’ These phrases pop up when talking about college prospects at the NFL Scouting Combine in regards to keeping their testing numbers in context compared to what you see from them on the field. Does a linebacker who runs a 4.50 in the 40-yard dash actually play that fast? Well play-speed correlates directly to a player’s instincts and his ability to process information. The quicker he sees it, the quicker he attacks it. This is why some players who test well at the Combine aren’t necessarily good football players once the pads come on, because they don’t see things as clearly and therefore aren’t able to take advantage of those athletic gifts. That is not the case with Alonso, who is one of the fastest linebackers in terms of ‘play speed’ in the entire NFL.

Watch him here on this shovel pass against Tampa Bay, as he quickly reads it and gets downhill in a hurry to bring the back down for a loss. On plays like this, you can see the short-area burst paired with the instincts, all adding up to quality play speed.

The ability to play fast also is visible when you watch how a player navigates through traffic. Here you can see how quickly Alonso is able to chase down this Dolphins running back from the back door, sifting through the trash to make a play on the ball.

This was one of my favorite plays of Alonso’s that I watched on film. He immediately reads perimeter run at the snap of the ball and flies to the running back’s landmark. Look how fast he is moving compared to everyone else, and the jump he gets right when the ball is snapped. There are no false steps, no wasted movement, just a linebacker keying and diagnosing quickly and flying to the football.

Obviously the ability to play fast allows a linebacker to play sideline-to-sideline and have great range. On this play, you see Alonso ‘sugaring’ the A gap (something the Eagles have done often under defensive coordinator Bill Davis), pulling out at the snap of the ball, reading the play and chasing the ball down outside the numbers using the correct pursuit angle to make the stop. Alonso’s relentless nature is on display in that shot, and it’s an aspect of his game that is apparent from the first time you watch him. He has a motor that never quits, and is fanatical in his pursuit of the football.

Look at him in this play against the New York Jets, as he gets cut down on a perimeter run, immediately regains his balance and makes a play on the ball carrier. The Eagles are getting a player who NEEDS to get to the football on every play. Making plays like that require a certain amount of natural athletic ability as well, and I’m not just talking about straight-line speed or short-area burst. I’m speaking more to the necessary combination of balance, quickness and change-of-direction. Alonso consistently uses his athletic ability to make plays on opposing ball carriers.

On this play against Pittsburgh, after you take into account the reaction quickness (instincts) and ability to get in position to out-leverage Steelers running back LeVeon Bell (play speed), notice how easily Alonso breaks down after running full speed and brings Bell to the ground. He doesn’t overrun the play, he doesn’t waste motion as he screeches to a halt, instead he quickly comes to balance and gets Bell wrapped up for a minimal gain. That takes a large amount of athletic ability.

This tackle-for-loss against Tampa Bay again exemplifies all of these factors rolled into one, and made for one of my favorite plays that I saw from then then-rookie linebacker. Again, he quickly diagnoses, breaks down, reads screen, and shoots his gun again after coming to balance, bringing the back down for a loss. Alonso’s athleticism and instincts all contribute to this play.

We haven’t even talked about Alonso’s abilities as a tackler. As you’ve been able to see in the nine plays so far, he is a very consistent, wrap-up tackler who always gets his man to the ground. He hits with good technique more often than not and displays the strength to get even the biggest of ball carriers into the dirt. That play-strength translates to his ability to take on lead blocks as well, something that impressed me the more I watched him on tape.

The Bills are running a little ‘Fire X’ blitz on this play, a good play call against this inside run from the Buccaneers. Watch Alonso take on the fullback, destroy his block, and fall off of him to get in on the tackle.

Alonso didn’t just take on fullbacks and tight ends at the point of attack, as his fearless nature brought him into head-on collisions with offensive linemen on the move as well, as you can see from this outside run against the Carolina Panthers. Look at Alonso throw his weight into the right tackle, constrict the running lane to limit the amount of space for the running back to work with and make the stop for a short gain.

Does Alonso consistently take on linemen and stack and shed them? No, but for a young linebacker this is typically one of the areas that takes time to develop. Mychal Kendricks had similar issues coming out of California, and that has developed into one of his strengths. The fact that he shows the willingness to stick his face in the fan at the point of attack and take on those blocks is a positive sign that he can continue to develop that area of his game. And while he doesn’t always ‘win’ when he engages with a lineman, he has shown the ability time and time again to keep himself clean and not allow them to latch on in space.

Alonso consistently was able to make blockers miss with a little arm-over move to keep himself clean and able to make a play on opposing running backs. Right as the lineman prepares to strike, he gives them a little ‘ole’, and keeps on flowing to the ball. This is also an area in which we’ve seen Kendricks excel during his time here in Philadelphia, as he too has developed into one of the top young linebackers in the NFL.

So that’s what he looks like defending the run, but what about the passing game? How is Alonso in coverage? Well, this was an area where the former second-round pick impressed me as well. In man coverage, we’ve seen the athletic traits already in this piece to prove that he has the ability to carry running backs and tight ends downfield. In zone coverage, he showed a really good feel for limiting a quarterback’s options through the air, and he did it in a number of ways.

On this rollout against Jacksonville, Alonso fails to fall for the play-action fake, holds his water, then when he sees Henne roll to his right, Alonso turns and ‘looks for work’ in the open field, helping to take away a crossing route and forcing Henne to run for a short gain. This is great open field awareness by Alonso. Another key component to being a successful underneath defender in zone coverage is the ability to ‘pattern read’. This requires a player to recognize opponent tendencies, have a feel for offensive pass concepts and maintain vision on the quarterback to take away throws in a progression. Alonso did that on a number of occasions in 2013.

On this play in the final game of Alonso’s first season, the New England Patriots are running a simple ‘stick’ concept to the right, with a vertical route, an out route and an option route from the No. 3 receiver, lined up across from Alonso. The rookie proved he had a key on that play, stepped in front of the option route to take the throw away from Tom Brady, forcing Brady to go back to the other side of the field for an incomplete pass.

Here’s another example of pattern reading from Alonso, who reads this ‘snag’ concept from the Panthers perfectly. Look at him break on the route just before Cam Newton throws the ball! This is a player with a great feel for opposing passing games and an understanding of his opponent each week.

One final play from coverage, this time where Alonso reads the eyes of the quarterback and lets those eyes lead Alonsol. Alonso reads the eyes of quarterback Geno Smith (also a rookie at the time), sees Smith looking at the backside slant, and jumps the route for a huge interception and a long return. Alonso’s natural feel for the passing game is huge in today’s NFL, and will go a long way towards what should be a very productive career here in Philadelphia.

The final aspect of a linebacker’s game is his ability to blitz the quarterback. The Bills, under former defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, were very multiple and deployed their personnel in a variety of looks and found different ways to pressure teams each week. Alonso was put in a blitzing situation often, and he has said in the past that he wants to improve that area of his game – and watching him you can see that he’s still developing his hand-use as a pass rusher. But look at how his instincts and snap anticipation lead to a huge tackle for loss on this blitz call up the middle. Alonso makes it look like everyone else is moving in slow motion as he gets into Cleveland’s backfield and brings the running back down for a four-yard loss.

Ultimately, what the Eagles are getting in Kiko Alonso is the complete package at the linebacker position. Think about all of the critical factors you want in a player at that spot (or even better, go back and listen to what the experts tell you to look for), and we’ve covered them all in this piece. Instincts, play speed, toughness, athleticism, tackling, strength at the point of attack, ability to play in coverage and lastly blitzing potential. You can check all of those boxes with Alonso, a player who should be one of the most exciting players on this time for the foreseeable future.

Fran Duffy is the producer of “Eagles Game Plan” which can be seen on 6abc Saturdays at 7:30 PM. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast each week online and on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University Football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team’s games, practices and opponents.

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