Aaron Donald has been a force for the Rams this year, leading the league in sacks and earning All-Pro honors en route to what’s sure to be a second straight Defensive Player of the Year award. But while Donald will undoubtedly be the best defensive player on the field in Super Bowl LIII on Sunday, the guy lined up next to him may be the real X factor in the game.
Ndamukong Suh has been overshadowed by his superstar linemate for most of the year, but the grizzled veteran still has plenty of pass-rushing talent—and he’s peaking at just the right time. Suh was quiet in the regular season but his production has exploded in the playoffs: The Rams unleashed him on the Cowboys and Saints, moving him around the line so he could take advantage of single-blocks and create havoc in the backfield. With the Patriots sure to dedicate most of their attention to holding Donald at bay, Suh should see a bevy of one-on-one pass-rush opportunities. That will give him the chance to do what the Chargers and Chiefs failed at in the divisional and championship rounds: Put Tom Brady on his back.
The Patriots have managed to keep their future Hall of Fame quarterback clean for all but a handful of his playoff snaps. But New England hasn’t faced a defensive line built quite like that of the Rams, and if Suh can play like he has over his past two games, he’ll have a chance to derail the so-far ironclad Patriots’ gameplan—and help deliver the Rams the Lombardi Trophy.
When L.A. signed Suh to a one-year, $14 million deal over the offseason, they formed one of the most intimidating interior defensive line duos the NFL has ever seen. But for most of the season, the numbers have been heavily tilted in Donald’s favor: Donald finished with a league- and career-high 20.5 sacks and an NFL-best 106 pressures, per Pro Football Focus, far outpacing Suh’s 4.5 sacks and 48 pressures. But in the divisional and championship rounds, it’s been Suh leaving his mark in the box score. He’s posted 1.5 sacks, and notched seven pressures—third among all linemen in that stretch and two more than his playmaking linemate.
Part of Suh’s success over the past two games has come from the attention opponents pay to Donald, of course. The Cowboys and Saints both double-teamed Donald frequently, giving Suh the chance to go to work against a single blocker. But doubling Donald has largely been every team’s strategy this year, so the recent uptick in production has deeper roots. Some credit clearly goes to Suh, who’s played with his hair on fire on every snap, and some to defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who has put his big free-agent acquisition in the right spots to succeed.
”We’re used to seeing [Suh] play well, but these last two have been his best,” Phillips said this week. “It was just me getting used to what he wants to do, and him getting used to what we want him to do. He’s finally put it all together.”
A catalyst for that improvement has been the Rams’ decision to move Suh around the formation and let him rush from a wider variety of spots on the defensive line. After lining up on the interior on 70 percent of his snaps during the regular season, that number has dropped to just 57 percent in the playoffs; he isn’t often described as one, but Suh has been heavily utilized as an edge rusher in the team’s last two games—especially against the Saints, when he lined up outside on 35 of his 58 snaps (60 percent), per PFF. That shift has paid dividends: When Suh lines up next to Donald on the edge, it stresses that side of the offensive line and could give the Patriots a look they haven’t really encountered. Few edge players pack as much pure power as Suh, so offensive tackles Trent Brown and Marcus Cannon must be prepared to get bull-rushed. But at 6-foot-4 and 313 pounds, Suh is also quick enough to get the edge if either tackle doesn’t set deep enough. The Rams’ versatile lineman showed off plenty of juice on these edge rush reps against the Saints:
Drew Brees was able to unload quick passes to Alvin Kamara on all three of these plays (a strategy the Patriots will surely look to replicate), but the combination of Suh’s ability to affect the edge with Donald’s power and quickness to collapse the pocket from the inside could create issues for New England’s drop-back game. The Pats, as Donald pointed out to media members on Thursday, “are going to have to hold the ball eventually,” a reference to New England’s quick-passing tactics over the past two games. Whether that’s a third-and-long or a pass-only situation in the two-minute drill, Brady won’t be able to go the entire game without passing the ball downfield. Those are the moments when Donald and Suh will have the opportunity to do the most damage.
The Rams could have other answers for the Patriots’ quick game, too. L.A. mixed in a few looks (including on their play in overtime when they intercepted Brees) where Suh was tasked with chipping the running back coming out of the flats in order to disrupt timing. Expect some of that on Sunday against the Pats.
The Saints’ reaction to Suh’s increase in outside rushes was to counter with beefier protections on the edge. On one play, utility man Taysom Hill chipped and tight end Garrett Griffin stayed in to block—and when right tackle Ryan Ramczyk helped out on Suh, it freed Donald up to break through the line.
The extra attention the Saints had to pay to Suh helped give Donald a couple more one-on-one opportunities later in the game, and he took advantage.
Suh’s been consistently effective rushing the passer from the edge this year, posting a pressure rate (10.2 percent) nearly double what he’s provided from the inside (5.6 percent). But, crucially, his 1.5 sacks this postseason have come from the inside, and the Rams are going to need him to come up big rushing from both the three-technique and nose tackle spots this Sunday. If (when) the Patriots double-team Donald on the inside, Suh’s going to need to make them pay. Against the Cowboys in the divisional round, he gave All-Pro guard Zack Martin some trouble on a few snaps, affecting quarterback Dak Prescott even though he wasn’t able to get home for a sack.
Against the Saints, Suh got a one-on-one thanks to another Donald double-team―and that time, he finished.
In the Super Bowl, the matchup between Suh and Patriots guards Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason and center David Andrews will be worth watching. Brady’s the master of stepping up into the pocket to elude outside rushers, and has registered a 118.7 passer rating when pressure comes off the edge. However, when the pocket is compromised from the inside, it’s a different story. Brady’s passer rating against interior pressure this year, including playoffs, is just 63.1. Collapsing the pocket, getting people around his feet, and making Brady move back and to the side may be the key to the game for L.A. The good news is that, largely because of Suh and Donald, the Rams were the league’s best inside rushing team this season, posting a 16.6 percent pressure rate from the interior. That may not be enough against Brady and the Pats, though. Suh needs to go off.
The Patriots, because they’re the Patriots, are going to have a plan. “I’m not sure what they’re going to do on the offensive side of the ball from a protection standpoint,” Suh told reporters on Thursday. “I’ve seen double-teams; I’ve seen where they’ve singled me and done different things. I’ve played against the Patriots a numerous amount of games, especially over the last three years, so I’m expecting anything and everything. We’ll just be prepared to execute once I have the opportunities against whoever it may be.
“I’m going after [Brady] as much as I can, as often as I can,” he said. “My goal is to irritate him, and be in his face on all opportunities.”
The Patriots will likely try to run the ball and rely on their quick-passing attack again this Sunday to neutralize the Rams’ fearsome pass-rushing front. But if L.A. can slow down that run, it will help force Brady into more situations where he needs to push the ball down the field. Those are the situations where Suh’s going to be the biggest factor. If his last two games are any indication, he’ll be ready to capitalize.