At the halfway mark of the 2018 NFL season, I wrote about seven single-season records that seemed poised to fall by the end of the year. That included marks for total touchdowns, passing touchdowns, passing yards, passing completions, completion percentage, receptions, and receiving yards. And I very nearly added an eighth category: sacks.
Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald was leading the league with 10.0 sacks at the time, putting him on pace to finish with 20.0, which is within shouting distance of the official record of 22.5, set by Michael Strahan in 2001. I’d written an entire section on Donald and the sacks record but cut it at the last minute, figuring that it would be virtually impossible for a defensive tackle to break that record. Here was my justification at the time:
Donald’s sack rate is probably the most unsustainable statistic in this piece. Sacks can fluctuate wildly from year to year, and Donald’s previous season high is 11.0. The chances he tallies more sacks in just the next eight games than he ever has in an entire season are pretty low.
So much for impossible. A month and a half later, Donald has not only maintained his first-half success, but he’s actually upped his pace, recording 6.5 sacks in the four games since the season’s midway mark. He now has 16.5 sacks, and with four games to go, he’s on pace to finish the season with 22.0, just half a sack shy of Strahan’s record.
To put Donald’s season sack total into perspective, consider this: There are only five active players who have finished a season with more sacks than Donald’s current number of 16.5: Justin Houston (in 2014), J.J. Watt (2012, 2014, and 2015), Robert Quinn (2013), Von Miller (2012), and Chandler Jones (2017). Hell, the Bears’ Khalil Mack—who signed a larger deal than Donald’s just a day after Donald agreed to his long-awaited extension, who rushes from the outside instead of the interior, who looked like an MVP candidate earlier this season, and who will play against Donald this week—has never recorded more than 15.0 sacks in a season. Donald’s already tied for the third-most sacks through 12 games since sacks became an official statistic in 1982, and he’s done that despite not recording a single one through the first three weeks of the season.
If Donald can keep his recent pace up, he could bring some legitimacy to one of the more bizarre records in sports. Though sacks have become a widely-cited football stat, the NFL’s historical tally is a mess. Strahan holds the official record, but the way he got there seems almost fraudulent. His final sack that season came against Brett Favre, who was good friends with Strahan and reportedly wanted Strahan to have the record. Late in the fourth quarter of the Packers-Giants Week 17 matchup, Favre changed a play call without telling his offensive line and ran directly into Strahan’s hands, giving the Giants defensive end the sack that ultimately set the record. Favre didn’t exactly win an Emmy for this acting performance:
There’s also another asterisk that comes with the record: The NFL didn’t start recording sack totals until 1982, so players from past eras have brought Strahan’s record into question. Former Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Coy Bacon, for instance, claims to have recorded 26 sacks in 1976. But others say that Bacon’s figure counts combined sacks as solo sacks, and that the real number would be 21.5 or 22.0. Meanwhile, some researchers credit Lions defensive end Bubba Baker with 23 sacks in 1978, though most contend he only got to 21.5. We won’t know the real single-season number until someone comes along and blows these figures out of the water, but for now, Donald just has to beat the official tally of 22.5. Which, against all odds, is doable.
Beyond just his sack total, Donald is having a one-of-a-kind season. So far this year, he’s recorded 84 pressures, which is a Pro Football Focus stat that tracks any time a defender disrupts a QB. The closest player to Donald’s number is Eagles defensive end Fletcher Cox, with 66.
Since the start of the 2017 season, Aaron Donald has 56 more total pressures than any other player.— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) December 3, 2018
That distance he is clear of the field would rank 5th in the NFL this year - tied with JJ Watt.
Donald is also first in QB hits with 32, and he’s on pace to finish with 43 QB hits by the end of the year, which would make him the only player not named J.J. Watt to surpass 40 in a season (the stat goes back to 1999).
It’s also worth noting that unlike Ford and Cox, Donald is doing the majority of his work from the interior of the defensive line. Per Pro Football Focus, Donald has lined up at one of the defensive tackle spots on 415 of his 679 snaps this season, with the Rams moving him around the rest of the time to create matchups he can exploit. Donald specializes in beating offensive linemen with his preternatural quickness, like he did on this Week 8 sack against the Packers:
And with pure power, like on this Week 7 sack against the 49ers:
At 6-foot-1, Donald is a little shorter than most defensive tackles, and when he came out of college in 2014, his frame was the main knock against him. But his shorter stature (and lower center of gravity) gives him the ability to gain leverage over his blocker. Basically, he’s both faster and stronger than nearly everyone he lines up against.
Teams often try to negate Donald’s skill set by double-teaming him, but he can beat that, too. On this Week 13 play, he splits two Detroit linemen and bursts into the backfield to record a strip sack of Matthew Stafford:
What makes Donald all the more impressive is that he combines that physical dominance with technical precision. Remember when he worked out with (fake) knives in the offseason? Watch his hands on this Week 4 play against the Vikings:
Minnesota lineman Tom Compton barely touches Donald before Donald is slipping through the line to take down Kirk Cousins.
And once Donald gets into the backfield, he does more than just pressure the quarterback. He also leads the league with 20 tackles for a loss this season. Here he is against the Saints in Week 9, blocking Alvin Kamara’s path like a brick wall:
Donald started to generate some MVP buzz this week, and Vegas now gives him the fourth-best odds to take home the award this year. He almost certainly won’t win — it’s nearly impossible for a defensive player to win MVP, and both Patrick Mahomes II and Drew Brees would need to implode down the stretch to give Donald a shot. But he’s definitely on his way to his second straight Defensive Player of the Year trophy, with a dominant season the likes of which we haven’t seen since peak J.J. Watt. And if he has a few more big outings, he’ll be able to accomplish something no player has done since 2001: rewrite the sacks record.