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Buffalo Bills’ sack artist Lorenzo Alexander sets his sights on Kaepernick

The league sack leader prepares to take on the 49ers and their QB

The question wasn’t meant to be funny, but Buffalo Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander took it as a joke: How has he become a dope pass rusher so late in his career? After the booming laughter on the other end of the phone finally stopped, the journeyman tried to explain the NFL’s most surprising story.

“Well, I don’t look at myself as a sack artist,” he said, amusement still evident in his tone. “I’m not ultratalented. I’m not off the charts in anything. I have to make it up in other ways. Really, I just do it by my will to outwork somebody else.”

So far this season, Alexander’s effort has lifted him all the way up.

Through five games, he has racked up a league-high seven sacks. He’s also tied for third with two forced fumbles. Those would be lit statistics under any circumstances. However, when you also factor in that the career backup totaled only nine sacks in his first nine seasons combined, never had more than 2 ½ sacks in a season, entered the NFL as an undrafted, undersized defensive tackle, bounced around to five teams and was not expected to play a significant role, if any, on defense for Buffalo, well, this is developing into a you-wouldn’t-pitch-this-to-a-movie-producer-for-fear-of-being-laughed-out-of-the-office story. And the topper is that Alexander’s stunning emergence has played a key role in the Bills’ three-game winning streak after an 0-2 start.

Buffalo Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander (57) strips the ball from New York Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (14) as tackle Ryan Clady (78) blocks during the first quarter at New Era Field.

Buffalo Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander (No. 57) strips the ball from New York Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (No. 14) as tackle Ryan Clady (No. 78) blocks during the first quarter at New Era Field.

Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Around the league, people are talking about the Bills again (for reasons other than bombastic head coach Rex Ryan’s antics, anyway), and western New York will be in the national spotlight Sunday. In his first start of the season, woke 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick will try to end the Bills’ streak. For his part, Alexander will pursue the mobile Kaepernick with the same approach that has made his name more familiar to football fans the past few weeks: Just put in the work.

“Everything that has happened, yeah, it’s a cool experience. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t enjoying it – but I’m enjoying winning more,” Alexander said. “I’m much happier talking about that than talking about sacks and tackles for losses. If you’re not winning games, none of the rest of it matters. But it’s only Week 6. You have to stay focused. Things can change quickly.”

He knows the deal. Almost from the minute he joined the Bills in April, Alexander has had to adjust quickly.

Buffalo needed help on special teams. Alexander was the bomb on teams for the Washington Redskins, Arizona Cardinals and Oakland Raiders. Even in his 10th season at 33 – which is long in the tooth in a league in which players joke that the abbreviation NFL stands for “not for long” – the Bills figured Alexander still had enough left to be one of their leaders on the kicking and punting units. As for where Alexander fit in on the Bills’ defense, an emergency plan comes to mind. Before the season, alarms sounded.

First-round draft pick Shaq Lawson underwent shoulder surgery in May. The Bills still are awaiting his return. Without a better option opposite standout outside linebacker Jerry Hughes, the Bills gave Alexander a look. Obviously, they absolutely love what they’ve seen.

During last week’s 30-19 road victory over the Los Angeles Rams, Alexander had an eye-opening three-sack outing. From start to finish, Alexander pressured Rams quarterback Case Keenum in a performance that drew raves from the Bills. Alexander’s special-teams game is still tight, too: He continues to deliver timely tackles on coverage teams, including one that pinned the Rams deep on their half of the field at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Not even halfway through the schedule, the Bills have seen huge returns on their investment in Alexander.

“The guy is performing at a very, very high level, and things are going his way,” Buffalo defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman said. “We’re happy they’re going his way. And we hope they keep going his way.”

Buffalo Bills outside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander (57) brings down Los Angeles Rams quarterback Case Keenum (17) during the 4th quarter at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Buffalo Bills outside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander (No. 57) brings down Los Angeles Rams quarterback Case Keenum (No. 17) during the fourth quarter at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Alexander would be the first to tell you that he’s not a solo artist. He has benefited from the defensive-minded Ryan’s aggressive philosophy (the cartoonish stuff aside, Ryan can battle in X’s and O’s with the best of them) and starting on a defense that includes Hughes, nose tackle Marcell Dareus and end Kyle Williams. Not everyone can be double-teamed.

However, Alexander’s success shouldn’t somehow be minimized because he has teammates who draw more attention. Bottom line: The hardworking brother has made plays.

“He understands what we’re asking of him,” Thurman said. “He’s very intelligent. He asks the right questions. When you have someone like that who also works hard, sometimes things just fall in place.”

Successful edge rushers possess a rare combination of speed, quickness and strength. Those who reach elite status also master the use of their hands to gain an edge. Denver Broncos superstar Von Miller is currently the gold standard. Alexander’s edge game could best be described as raw but rapidly being refined.

“I haven’t excelled at any one thing,” he said. “Sometimes, I’m able to beat guys around the edge. Sometimes, I’m able to power rush ’em. Throughout a game, you may rush [the quarterback], on the high end, 20 times. You get to the quarterback even once, or twice, you’ve had a great game. It’s about being relentless. It’s about being consistent. You have to keep working on all the small things.”

Alexander’s commitment to detail helped make his NFL dream a reality beyond his wildest dreams.

A three-year starter at defensive tackle for the University of California, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in legal studies, Alexander originally signed with the Carolina Panthers as an undrafted free agent in 2005. Released by Carolina in September 2006, he was briefly on the Baltimore Ravens practice squad before the Redskins signed him to their practice squad in October of that year. Hall of Fame head coach Joe Gibbs, then in his second stint with the franchise, liked Alexander’s versatility.

The three-time Super Bowl winner instructed his assistants to explore different roles in which to use Alexander. During Washington’s season-closing run to a playoff berth in 2007, Alexander was all over the field on offense (he played both guard and tight end), defense (as a reserve tackle) and special teams, earning the nickname “One Man Gang.” LaVar Arrington expected Alexander to make an impact.

The former Pro Bowl linebacker trained Alexander, “and seeing how hard he works, seeing how serious he is about his craft, I knew he was the type of person who could make it in this league,” Arrington said. “And believe me, just the fact that he has been in the league as long as he has, man, that says a whole lot. He didn’t even come in playing the position he’s playing now. Do you know how rare that is? Very.”

Buffalo Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander (57) celebrates during the second half of an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016, in Los Angeles.

Buffalo Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander (No. 57) celebrates during the second half of an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams on Oct. 9 in Los Angeles.

AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo

With Washington, the onetime 300-pounder reinvented himself: He shed 55 pounds to play outside linebacker. Although Alexander performed well at the new position, there are only so many snaps in a game, and he was behind first-rounders Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan. After more than six years with Washington, Alexander never hit his stride in two seasons on the Cardinals, primarily because of a foot injury. He spent last season with his hometown Raiders and then shuffled off to Buffalo.

Alexander has produced at least a one-half sack in every game. But the Bills haven’t faced a quarterback as elusive as Kaepernick, the 49ers’ dual-threat passer who this season has made headlines for his actions on the sidelines. Kaepernick no longer stands during the national anthem – first sitting and now kneeling – in an effort to draw attention to the oppression of black people and people of color. Kaepernick ignited a nationwide debate. The ongoing discussion is necessary, Alexander said.

“Growing up as a black man in this country, the things he’s drawing attention to, as far a social injustice, it has to be talked about,” Alexander said. “By doing what he’s doing, he’s keeping the conversation going. Whether it’s the best way to do it, that’s another discussion. But I support him.”

Again on Sunday, Alexander figures to have a major role in Buffalo’s game plan. But Lawson is expected to return this season. The Bills drafted him to fill an important role; he’s their future. For now, though, Alexander is the guy the Bills need. And that’s no joke.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at The Undefeated. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.