Talking to Wade Phillips can feel like cracking open a book on the best defensive players in football history. The Rams coordinator has coached in the NFL for 40 years, and he’s been fortunate enough to tutor some legends. Phillips will drop names like Bruce Smith and Reggie White into casual conversation the way most people would mention their buddy Frank. After spending one season overseeing the defense in Los Angeles, Phillips feels comfortable adding Aaron Donald to his list of greats.
In late December, Phillips said he didn’t think Donald’s 2017 accolades should be limited to the Defensive Player of the Year. As the fourth-year defensive tackle collected 11 sacks for one of the league’s best defenses, Phillips grew more ambitious. “I was thinking more like Most Valuable Player in the league,” Phillips told reporters on December 21. A week later, standing outside the media room at the Rams’ facility in Thousand Oaks, California, Phillips admits that he was selling Donald’s MVP case to make a point. But he also contends that there’s a real point to be made. “I think [Donald] is the most dominant defensive player,” Phillips says. When it’s suggested that Donald is playing his position at a higher level than anyone in football, Phillips doesn’t hesitate. “Yeah,” he says, “that’s definitely true.”
As a defensive tackle, Donald faces a daunting road to winning Defensive Player of the Year honors, let alone MVP. The Buccaneers’ Warren Sapp was the last full-time interior defensive lineman to take home the DPOY trophy, and that happened 18 years ago. In Donald’s lifetime, an interior lineman has won the award only three times.
For defenders who reside in the muck between the tackles, the statistical production required to capture individual hardware can be hard to accrue. Donald is tied for 11th in the NFL in sacks, but dig deeper and his numbers are there. His 91 pressures are 21 more than any other interior lineman in the league, according to Pro Football Focus, and eight more than the closest edge player—Von Miller. Down after down, Donald has emerged as the most devastating defender in football, and he’s a prime reason the 11-5 Rams enter Saturday’s wild-card matchup against the Falcons as the turnaround story of the season and a legitimate Super Bowl threat.
As of late, he’s taken things one step farther: It’s time to start seriously considering Aaron Donald as the best player in the NFL.
The show that Donald put on at the 2014 scouting combine did more than just shape his reputation as one of the most gifted athletes to ever grace the field. It became the stuff of football folklore. “What did Aaron run in the 40 at the combine?” Ravens All-Pro guard Marshal Yanda asks. “It was crazy. At like 300 pounds, he ran like a 4.6. He’s super fast, he’s super twitchy. And he also did like over 30 reps of 225 [pounds in the bench press].”
Yanda’s recollection isn’t far off. Donald, who weighed in at 285 pounds, tore off a 4.68-second 40-yard dash, one of the best times ever recorded by a defensive tackle. He tossed up 35 reps on the bench press, placing him in the 92nd percentile at his position, and ranked among the 96th percentile in both the broad jump and three-cone drill. Donald’s display was the sort of performance that comes along once in a generation.
Many NFL athletes have physiques resembling Marvel sketches, but Donald stands out even among that crowd. Defensive tackles simply aren’t built like him. Donald looks like the Incredible Hulk, only shrunken to 6-foot-1. His traps jut off his shoulders in a manner that’s almost cartoonish. He has no body fat to be found. “I think some guards in there try to roughhouse him, but nobody’s gonna do that in this league,” Rams defensive line coach Bill Johnson says. “I can tell you that right now. I’ve been in this league 18, 19 years, and from a physical standpoint, he’s got it all.”
Donald’s unique profile provides the basis for his success. Yet despite recording eye-popping production at the University of Pittsburgh (28.5 tackles for loss as a senior) and delivering an all-time showing at the combine, Donald fell to the 13th pick in the 2014 draft largely because of concerns about his height. “Marginal height and frame is nearly maxed out,” Donald’s NFL.com draft profile read. “... Overpowered in the run game and ground up by double teams. Gets snared and controlled by bigger, longer blockers.”
The irony is that NFL offensive linemen hate Donald’s stature. “I don’t like shorter guys because they have natural leverage,” Yanda says. He compares Donald to Geno Atkins, the Bengals standout Yanda faces twice per season. “[Donald’s height] creates issues,” veteran Giants guard John Greco says. “Because right off the bat, he’s lower than you. When he creates that momentum and that leverage, it’s a nightmare to stop.”
Against most defensive tackles, a guard will devise a plan to take away one specific pass-rushing approach. With a lot of interior players, that involves hunkering down to stop power moves and forcing 300-pounders to beat them with speed. That isn’t an option for those lining up against Donald. By anchoring immediately at the snap to prevent him from building a head of steam, guards leave themselves vulnerable to speed moves on the outside. “You don’t expect it, especially from a three-technique [tackle], that he would have the speed to go around the edge and make you whiff on your punch,” Rams guard Rodger Saffold says.
The problem with treating Donald like any other quick-twitch tackle is that even at 285 pounds, he’s powerful enough to knock a guard right on his ass. “Most speed guys like him, you’re going to want to set off the ball and not worry about the bull rush,” Yanda says, referring to the way he typically likes to create separation from quicker defenders at the snap. “Well, if you set off the ball and he catches you in a bull rush, you’re goin’ backwards.”
Donald presents opponents with a true dilemma, forcing them to choose between two equally horrible options. Rams guard Jamon Brown has played with Donald for three seasons. Over time, he’s concluded that the best route to slowing him is to close any initial distance at the snap. “He’s got one of the best get-offs, I feel, in the game right now,” Brown says. “My thought process is, if I get on him early, I have a better chance to recover or recoup later in the down.”
Yanda has faced Donald only once, during the Ravens’ 16-13 win against the Rams in the 2015 season. From his experience, it’s best to account for Donald’s initial burst because of how quickly it can torpedo a given play. “I’m definitely going to set for the speed just because the speed is usually what gets the sack the fastest,” Yanda says. “The bull rush, you can kind of die a slow death and at least have a chance.”
Every guard interviewed for this story offered his own pet theory for how to handle Donald, but the truth is that none felt confident in their approach. Donald’s physical skill set is such that there is no right way to contain him. “You’re basically going to stop one thing, and if he does the other thing, you’re going to get beat,” Yanda says. “That’s something you’re gonna try to avoid, but it’s the cost of doing business with guys like that.”
For as rare as Donald’s athletic traits are, there are other defensive tackles who are at least in his orbit in that regard. Greco compares Buccaneers star Gerald McCoy’s burst off the line to Donald’s. He mentions Eagles tackle Fletcher Cox as another guy who can be devastating when given space to get moving. In his nearly two decades coaching NFL linemen, Johnson has seen plenty of physically gifted and ultra-talented players. What he hasn’t seen is a guy who combines otherworldly talent with an uncanny feel for causing chaos like Donald. “A lot of people have got speed and power,” Johnson says. “[Aaron] has also got this instinct, whatever it is. If I knew exactly what it was, I’d be writing books.”
The way that Donald can make adjustments mid-play often sabotages any preliminary plan a guard or team has to stop him. What Brown and Saffold have come to fear most about Donald, after hundreds of reps going against him in practice, is neither his speed nor power. It’s how he can change his approach based on their initial movements. Any step, lean, or shift can provide an opening that leads to destruction or embarrassment. “He can feel your weight so well,” Saffold says, alluding to Donald’s sense for knowing which direction a lineman wants him to go. “He’s able to make those counters off any type of lean to make you fall flat on your face.”
Saffold says the counter move he dreads most is the bull pull. What starts out as a bull rush quickly transitions to a speed move that involves Donald yanking a lineman forward and swimming over the top. The swim—a quick flip of the wrist over a guard’s shoulder—can go to either side, depending on the angle that the offensive lineman is facing.
Brown admits that the bull pull is devastating, but finds it less intimidating than the small stutter step Donald regularly tries before his bull rush. The goal of that stutter is to gauge how a guard will react to Donald threatening to go both inside and outside on a single snap, a possibility that gets to the essence of what makes him virtually unstoppable. Donald may start a given play on the outside shoulder of a guard, but there’s no guarantee he’ll stay in that gap, even if it’s his assignment. “With NFL situational football you’re thinking, ‘OK, this guy has to be rushing this gap,’” Greco says. “That’s not the case [with Donald]. He’s going to take the path of least resistance to the quarterback.”
Donald’s lateral quickness allows him to jump from one gap to another on a single play, but it’s the less obvious elements of his movement that truly speak to his greatness. To account for Donald as a pass rusher, offenses like to send the center in his direction. The goal in these cases is for the guard to funnel Donald to his help on the inside. But that approach can go sideways when Donald is so quick to dart inside that neither the guard nor the center is in position to clip enough of Donald to stop him. Knowing exactly when to strike inside negates the value of double-teams altogether. “When I talk to people about Aaron,” Brown says, “I tell them that he’s the best reactionary animal I’ve ever gone against. Meaning sometimes, when he goes inside, it’s not necessarily something that you did. It’s something that he sees. Once he takes that inside and he makes his mind up, that’s when it’s the hardest to stop him.”
How Donald developed that feel, only he knows. Phillips says that he’ll see Donald studying opponents alone in the team facility at night, like Bruce Smith used to do. “I don’t think he wants it out,” Phillips says, “but he does [that].” Johnson says that Donald prepares “quietly and individually,” and leaves it at that. The method with which Donald goes from mere film study to a perfect understanding of how to attack every block is anyone’s guess.
In a sense, Donald’s unpredictability on the field can make him a coaching challenge. “You wouldn’t let anyone else do that,” Johnson says of Donald’s freelancing tendencies. He points to a game-sealing sack from the Rams’ 41-39 win against the 49ers in Week 3, one of those classic plays that involved Donald hopping from one gap into the other, as evidence. At the snap, Donald goes after right guard Brandon Fusco’s outside edge with a quick club-and-rip move. The moment that Fusco leans to his right to slow him, though, Donald swings his left arm over the guard’s hands, bursts inside, and drags quarterback Brian Hoyer down in the backfield.
By now, Phillips has enough experience around transcendent players that he doesn’t get in the way of tactics like that. “It’s easy for me,” Phillips says. “That’s the way I coach. You ask [players] to do certain things, but when they do something different and make the play, it’s an ‘atta boy.’ If you take that away from the great ones, you’re going to limit them.”
Make no mistake: Phillips believes Donald is on track to becoming one of the greats. The arrival of Phillips and head coach Sean McVay in L.A. before the 2017 season has elevated the Rams franchise, and with that, Donald has ascended to even greater heights. “He’s got a zest for wanting to win, and [the Rams] haven’t won,” Phillips says. “I think it’s perked him up a bit.”
Saturday’s wild-card game against the Falcons will be Donald’s first playoff appearance, and it comes against an offensive line missing injured guard Andy Levitre. As Atlanta—and the rest of the NFC—prepares to deal with the most unstoppable force in football, there’s only so much advice that a fellow blocker can give. “It’s just a rough day,” Saffold says of facing Donald. “You’ve got to just get out there and hang on for dear life.”