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Joking aside, studying Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald is akin to watching defensive end teaching tape, but it comes from an interior defensive lineman. From his quickness off his snap, his hand usage, his power, his ability to put together a plan as a pass rusher, his dexterity in the lower body, how he runs the arc like an EDGE defender, to his ability to explode through double-teams and on looks and stunts, Donald is a true master of his craft. His 2018 season was a thing of beauty, as he tallied 23.5 sacks and set a new record for single-season sacks by a defensive lineman.
Here is just a small sampling of how Donald can be so dominant in the interior.
Let’s start with Donald’s game from Week 4 against the Minnesota Vikings. On this first play, we see the quickness and hand usage from Donald (#99) on a swim move. He aligns outside of left guard Tom Compton (#79), and off the snap starts upfield into the B-Gap. But Donald then cuts to the inside with a violent swim move over the guard, and Kirk Cousins (#8) has no chance in the pocket:
This next play from later in the game gives us some insight into how Donald puts together a plan as a pass rusher, similar to some of the best EDGE defenders in the game today. Having beaten Compton with a swim move to the inside earlier in the game, Donald has the LG on guard for the cut to the inside – pun intended – so he then exploits that:
Donald beats Compton to the outside, dipping and ripping around the outside shoulder of the guard. But getting past him is one thing, now Donald needs to flatten his run and angle toward the quarterback. The flexion in the lower he displays here mirrors that of the great pass rushers off the outside. Donald’s change of direction ability makes him such a dangerous threat as a pass rusher in the interior.
On this play against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 5, we again see a swim move to the inside against a left guard. Donald’s quickness off the snap often ends plays shortly after they begin. Here, he gets his hands into the LG immediately, putting him in position to use his left hand to control the guard, and then swim over with his right. Russell Wilson (#3) is helpless in the pocket:
Against the Green Bay Packers in Week 8 we again observe Donald putting together pass rush moves to set up a left guard. First, the speed move to the outside against left guard Lane Taylor (#65):
Donald’s burst here off the line of scrimmage puts Taylor behind the eight-ball immediately after the snap. Once Donald gets past the LG, he again shows the lower body flexibility to change direction, flatten his path and get to Aaron Rodgers (#12). Another example of a quarterback with almost no chance of even finishing his drop, let alone getting the ball out of his hand.
Later in the game, Donald takes the inside path against Taylor:
Perhaps influenced by the earlier play, Taylor’s first step is toward the boundary, to protect the B-Gap. With the center sliding to the right to pick up the linebacker (before the linebacker loops to the outside) that creates a crease in the A-Gap. Donald slices right through it, and once more Rodgers has no chance in the pocket.
Scarier than perhaps any of these plays, is what defensive coordinator Wade Phillips can do with Donald and his running mate, Ndamukong Suh (#93). On this interior twist from Week 10 against the Seahawks, Donald aligns head up on the right tackle. But then he loops around into the opposite B-Gap, between the left guard and the left tackle. Suh, for his part, cuts from the outside shoulder of the left guard into the opposite A-Gap:
So after covering all that ground just to attack the opposite B-Gap, Donald then flattens and tracks down Wilson from behind. Aaron Donald: Destroyer of Worlds.
Remember when Happy Gilmore learned to putt? That’s seeing Donald bust out a spin move. He splits the sack here with Suh but, I mean…
Hand usage is such a critical component to defensive line play, and how quick Donald is with his hands often puts linemen at a disadvantage immediately after the snap. On this sack of Matthew Stafford (#9), Donald actually is resetting his stance at the snap of the football, so he does not get the kind of explosive jump off the line. But watch how he wins with his hands, getting into the left guard immediately and then ripping under his arm, putting him right into the path of Stafford in the pocket:
Now, despite his stellar regular season Donald has been held without a sack in the post-season. This does not mean he has not been an impact player for the Rams’ defense in the playoffs. He notched one tackle for a loss in the Divisional Round win over the Dallas Cowboys, and added two TFLs and three quarterback hits in the NFC Championship Game against the New Orleans Saints. In addition, Donald has a way of impacting the game that might not even show up on the stat sheet. On this play against the Saints, the offense slides the protection towards Donald, meaning he faces a double team from Andrus Peat (#75) and center Max Unger (#60). Donald still fights through the double with strength, getting to quarterback Drew Brees (#9) just after he releases this pass:
Later in the game New Orleans slid the protection away from Donald, leaving him with a one-on-one situation against right guard Larry Warford (#67). It takes something magical here from Brees to avoid a sack…or worse:
Donald gets his hands into Warford, who does a pretty good job of anchoring and setting his base, but Donald is still able to get past him to the outside. He swipes at the football and Brees, in the process of sliding away from the pressure, narrowly hangs onto the football and throws the quick checkdown. If the quarterback is a step slower here, this is a strip-sack and a potential turnover.
Here is where one of the chess matches of Super Bowl LIII comes into play. Sure, everyone might be excited for the Sean McVay versus Bill Belichick/Brian Flores main event, but do not sleep on the undercard between Wade Phillips and Josh McDaniels and Patriots’ offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia. On the pivotal overtime play of the NFC Championship game, Phillips put both Suh and Donald on the same side of the defensive line. The Saints, as one might expect, slid their protection in that direction. That left one-on-one situations on the backside, and Dante Fowler (#56)was able to win his, get to Brees and force an errant throw:
When the Patriots have the football Sunday night, ignore the temptation to watch Tom Brady and instead watch the matchup between the Rams’ defensive line and the Patriots’ offensive line. Trent Brown, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason and Marcus Cannon are a very cohesive unit that has done an extremely good job of protecting Brady the past few weeks. In the playoffs, matched up against two fearsome pass rushing groups in the Los Angeles Chargers and the Kansas City Chiefs, Brady has been sacked once and hit on one other occasion. The winner of this matchup in the trenches will in all likelihood be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy on Sunday night.