THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — Aaron Donald knocked over Dallas Cowboys linemen as if they were bowling pins. He sprinted past the Buffalo Bills‘ line to take down quarterback Josh Allen twice. Then Donald ruined Alex Smith‘s return to football when he sacked the Washington quarterback three times after taking down Kyle Allen once.
“Aaron Donald is a freak,” Rams coach Sean McVay said.
That might be an understatement about the Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle, who continues to wreak havoc in his seventh season and is making a case to win a third NFL Defensive Player of the Year award.
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“It’s kind of outrageous,” outside linebacker Leonard Floyd said of Donald’s on-field exploits, particularly his four-sack performance against Washington. “I don’t think anybody can top that.”
“You go about it just like every other week,” Donald said of facing the rookie quarterback. “They are starting him for a reason, so we’re going to go into the game with the mindset that we’ve just got to go out there and do our job, just like every other week.”
That should stoke some fear in Tagovailoa, who will be protected by an offensive line that has the third-worst pass block win rate in the league at 47.5%.
But Donald says getting into the backfield is the only way to make the rookie feel intimidated.
“The only way you can do that is putting pressure on them, getting to him, hitting him, not letting him be comfortable back there,” said Donald, who has 5½ sacks in five career games against rookie starting quarterbacks. “So, if we do that up front, not just because he’s a rookie quarterback, that’s with any quarterback, you get to him.”
Last Monday in a 24-10 win over the Chicago Bears, Donald had a season-high seven pressures against quarterback Nick Foles, assisting in a 20-pressure effort by the Rams, which is tied for their most in a game over the past two seasons.
But first-year defensive coordinator Brandon Staley points to Donald’s other contributions — those that don’t show up on the individual stat sheet — as some of his most important.
“He does so much to help us win in the run game, in the pass game, the way we can move him around,” Staley said. “He’s not a guy that just lines up in one spot, he can line up all over the formation. The thing about a guy like him that I think is unique is he has all the individual production, but then you have to factor in the production that he creates for other players, too.”
The Rams’ defense ranks among the best in the league through seven games, giving up an average of 313 yards (ranks sixth) and 17.7 points (second) per game. They have 24 sacks (tied for third) and a pass rush win rate of 47.6% (sixth).
Floyd joined the Rams over the offseason on a one-year, $10 million contract after the Bears released him before his fifth year due to a lack of production.
In seven starts, Floyd has four sacks and 19 pressures, putting him on pace for a career-best season, in part because of the attention Donald attracts.
“It’s been great playing with him,” Floyd said. “He’s a force on the inside and he’s been making it easier for us on the outside.”
Donald said he wasn’t worried about winning Defensive Player of the Year: “The only thing I didn’t accomplish, I feel like, is a Super Bowl, so that’s my only thing, is trying to do everything I can to help this team to win and get back to the Super Bowl and this time win it.”
But when asked if he would like to join the elite company of Lawrence Taylor and J.J. Watt as only the third player to earn the honor three times, Donald grinned and then chuckled uncomfortably.
“I’m just going week to week,” Donald said. “And I’m just going to play ball and try to win games.”