Finally given a chance to excel this season with the Bills, Alexander has as many sacks this season (a league-leading nine) as he had during the first nine NFL seasons. How the heck is this happening? And do Ryan, Alexander and the Bills have the ability to keep the sacks coming Sunday vs. the division rival New England Patriots?
In order to get a feel for what's going on up front in Buffalo, we asked Alexander to break down his nine sacks.
His first sack as a member of the Bills couldn't have come at a better time. With the Ravens in the red zone trying to take a two-score lead in the fourth quarter of their Week 1 matchup, Alexander and Leger Douzable split a third-down sack of Joe Flacco. He was lined up outside, ran a stunt with Kyle Williams and just kept driving until strong coverage gave him and Douzable a chance to take Flacco down, limiting Baltimore to a field goal.
Alexander's take: "The Ravens did a good job sliding the protection. The center actually comes and picks me up and knocks me back outside. I ended up turning the corner late, just by getting knocked down, but the defensive backs did a good job of making Flacco hold the ball."
In Week 2 against the Jets, on New York's first possession, Alexander recorded his first full sack for Buffalo, as well as the first of his three forced fumbles in a five-week span.
Alexander's take: "I was lined up against Ryan Clady on the right side. Base personnel on second down, and I just got off on the ball well and was able to swipe his hand, turn the corner. I wasn't close enough to sack him, but I saw his arm pull back so I was able to extend and reach out and hit his arm and create a fumble."
Leading the Cardinals 17-0 on a third down in Week 3, the Bills showed blitz but didn't send extra rushers and Alexander still got through several bewildered offensive linemen to sack Carson Palmer. (He also was credited with half a sack on a Palmer scramble late in the fourth quarter.)
Alexander's take: "It was a simulated blitz where you show pressure, but you end up only rushing four guys. I think it confused them a little bit, and as I crossed the center's face he let me go. I pretty much came in block-free and was able to corral Carson Palmer."
On if breaking in as a defensive tackle helps him rush inside instead of off the edge: "I think it helps. I think I'm a good blitzer just as far as trying to walk around and disguise some things, understanding what the coaches are trying to accomplish. But I also have an understanding of how quickly things happen in the interior. It's much different than on the outside. So everything that I've played up to this point has helped me become a better defender and pass rusher."
Alexander's lone sack in Week 4 against New England came as Patriots quarterback Jacoby Brissett scrambled away from pressure, giving Alexander a chance to cave in on him after dropping back into zone coverage to start the play. Right place, right time, but he also took a calculated risk that he might not have tried had Tom Brady been playing quarterback for New England.
Alexander's take: "It was another coverage sack. The guys on the back end did a good job making him hold the ball and we got the pressure. Once I saw him pull it down, I knew he wasn't going to throw. If it was Tom Brady I probably wouldn't have [broke from the zone] that fast. But understanding our personnel and it being Brissett, I just [gambled].
Alexander recorded three sacks in a 22-minute span during the second half of a Week 5 victory over the Los Angeles Rams.
The first came when he stopped a scrambling Case Keenum at the line of scrimmage after rushing from a stand-up position inside.
Alexander's take: "Again, the back end took away his initial read, and he just kind of pulled that one down. I don't think anybody made him do that, except maybe his initial read was covered and he felt like he had to step up. I was able to come back on the guard on the inside and was able to get him down."
The second came on another simulated blitz, with Alexander sacking Keenum less than two seconds after the snap.
Alexander's take: "I was trying to walk around and disguise what we were doing, listening to what the offensive line was calling out. On that one Kyle Williams did a great job holding up the center so he really couldn't get off clean, and that's really what allowed me to come free and make that play. And oftentimes those are the hardest ones, because the quarterback sees you coming and you're running full tilt. Luckily, Preston [Brown] was coming off the edge too, so [Keenum] really couldn't escape. He just kind of surrendered himself."
And the third came in a very obvious passing situation, with the Rams facing a third-and-10 down by two scores with two minutes left.
Alexander's take: "You get a chance to pin your ears back and kind of let loose because the running game at that point is kind of out of the picture. You can get a leg up on the tackle or the guard that you're rushing and really get after them. On this one I was on the inside again, with [Lerentee] McCray on the right-hand side. The guard did a good job of punching me, but the tackle's eyes were still on McCray, so when I came outside I was able to turn the corner. And the defensive backs did such a good job of making him hold the ball that I had enough time to get there, close and get him on the ground."
Alexander's take: "At that point our offense had put up 30-plus points and we had a significant lead, so he had to stay in the pocket in order to throw the ball down the field. So that really gave me a chance to turn the corner. I beat Joe Staley. He's one of the best tackles in the league, but we did a good job of throwing a lot of guys at him all day, and I was able to catch him leaning a little bit, swipe his hands, turn the corner and track Colin down. [Kaepernick's] eyes were still down the field so I was able to get the ball out for a strip sack."
On his sack of Ryan Tannehill in Miami last week, it was power vs. power up front. Miami had seven men blocking against a Bills defense that rushed six on a first-down play. But Alexander was matched up one-on-one with reserve tight end Dominique Jones, and it wasn't even close.
Alexander's take: "They were in a tiger package, with a big tackle in there at tight end and they also had their regular tight end in the game. It was a slide protection to try to pick up the blitz. They had read it earlier in the game when I tried to creep between the tackle and the tight end. I figured they'd try the same type of protection here, but this time they tried to help him outside. But I was able to turn the corner again, and it helped that we got some good pressure from the front side, not allowing [Tannehill] to step up. I was the guy to finish off the play."
You'll notice the supposedly blitz-happy, Rex/Rob Ryan-led Bills haven't been getting too many of their sacks by sending extra men. Their top sack man has recorded eight of his nine sacks without help from the blitz, which makes this Buffalo defense particularly scary for a Patriots team that hasn't received steady performances from the offensive line.
New England is somewhat vulnerable on the right side and in the interior. Youngsters Shaq Mason, Joe Thuney and David Andrews are exploitable, especially if you have a defensive front that features a rusher as versatile as Alexander. While tackles Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon deal with the likes of Jerry Hughes, McCray and Zach and Preston Brown on the edge, Buffalo will have the ability to stunt or flex Alexander inside in support of Williams.
That could be the key if the Bills want to complete their first season sweep of the Patriots this century and remain in contention for the AFC East title. And it might only help that the red-hot Alexander has extra motivation to sack Brady for the first time in his career.
"Obviously Tom is one of the greatest of all time to play the position, so any time you're competing against the best you want to be able to go out there and [succeed]," Alexander said. "Getting a sack would obviously be huge for the team, but it would also be something I can tell my kids about years from now."