On Sunday, Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa will make his debut as a starter, and he’ll do it standing across the line of scrimmage from Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald—a situation with few good solutions. In Week 3, Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll said the best way to game plan for Donald is to hope he’ll miss the bus to the game. One of the NFL’s best pass rushers, Donald is the player most likely to draw double- and triple-teams, then beat them anyway. The attention he draws has created a weekly game of keep-away between the Rams and their opponents, one where Los Angeles tries to put Donald in advantageous positions while offenses decide how far they’re willing to go to stop him.
“Every week, that’s the fight,” Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley said last week. “Trying to get him as many opportunities as possible.”
After seven weeks, Donald has eight sacks, second in the NFL. He’s tied for first with Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt at 15 quarterback hits, but what differentiates him from other dominant pass rushers is how much attention he gets from opposing linemen.
Going into the Rams’ Monday Night Football matchup against the Bears, Donald was facing a double-team on 70.1 percent of his pass rushes, according to ESPN. Throughout this season he has been double-teamed far more than any other pass rusher who is beating his blocks at a rate above league average. It hasn’t slowed him down—Donald is second among defensive tackles in ESPN’s pass-rush win rate metric, pressuring a quarterback or closing a rushing lane against 22 percent of his blocks. As a team, the Rams are sixth in pass-rush win rate, generating pressure 48 percent of the time.
Earlier this month, Donald half-joked that he wishes teams never double-teamed him. “I wish people could just not worry about me and just let me play,” he said. “Don’t give me no attention. You ain’t got to slide, you ain’t got to double-team me, you don’t have to do nothing. Let’s all play football fair, get some one-on-ones, and let’s just do what we’ve got to do. That’s all I want.”
Somewhere, the wolf from “Little Red Riding Hood” nodded in approval.
Donald is unlikely to get his wish since, on the rare occasions when teams single-block him, it tends not to end well for them. Three weeks ago, Donald had four sacks against the Washington Football Team, all coming when he was single-blocked. The thing is, when teams double-team him, it also tends not to end well for them.
Against the Bears, Donald had a season-high nine pass-rush wins, five of them coming against double-teams, according to ESPN Stats and Information. It was the second time this season that Donald has had five pass-rush wins against double-teams in a game, more than the rest of the NFL combined. During the Rams’ win over the Bears, Donald became the fourth player in NFL history with at least eight sacks in each of his first seven seasons. For those keeping track, we’re only through Week 7. Other players who have accomplished that same feat: Derrick Thomas, Reggie White, and DeMarcus Ware.
Part of the Rams’ challenge is ensuring that the attention Donald draws opens up opportunities for other pass rushers. So far, it has; as a team, the Rams defense is tied for third in the NFL with 24 sacks.
“When they’re making the plays and getting those sacks I’m happy for them,” Donald said. “It’s more frustrating when you’re getting that attention and guys aren’t getting there.”
Staley tries to rotate all his defensive linemen so that the players alongside Donald are fresh when he draws extra blockers. Donald plays 85 percent of the team’s defensive snaps, most among Rams defensive linemen, followed by Michael Brockers (64 percent) and Morgan Fox (39 percent)—linebacker Leonard Floyd is also frequently involved in the pass rush.
The Rams, however, don’t simply want Donald soaking up blocks; they want him to directly impact the game as much as possible. This means that Staley spends hours every week game-planning the Rams’ opponent, its style of play and protection schemes, and trying to figure out how they’ll be deployed against Donald.
“Every week, you’ve got to take the identity of that opponent and say, ‘OK, these are the ways that we think they’re going to try and mitigate the risk of Aaron Donald making a bunch of plays,’” Staley said.
Staley, who is in his first year on the Rams coaching staff, previously coached Von Miller in Denver and Khalil Mack in Chicago, so he knows what it’s like when the opposing team is predominantly focused on one player. The difference between Donald and those two players is that Donald mostly rushes from the interior. Because of that, Staley says he sees a lot more run schemes designed to stop Donald than he did for Miller or Mack, who primarily rush from the edge, where teams could account for them more easily. Since Donald doesn’t rely on coming off the edge to get to the quarterback, Staley and Rams head coach Sean McVay can move Donald all around the line of scrimmage to create favorable matchups.
“They actually can take care of an edge player a little bit more easily than an inside guy,” Staley said.
Donald’s most natural fit is as a “three technique,” where he lines up opposite a guard’s shoulder, but Staley said the Rams have been shifting him around more often this season to make him harder to plan for. It also stops offensive linemen tasked with blocking Donald from getting into any kind of rhythm against him.
“In certain situations, we definitely want to make sure that he’s not a static target and in the same spot,” McVay said. “It makes it a lot easier to kind of game plan a player of his magnitude when you know where he’s going to be.”
McVay said that some of the most creative protection alignments he’s seen to stop Donald have included running backs helping on blocking assignments and entire offensive lines shifting to Donald’s side. The most—really, the only—effective job a team has done stopping Donald this season was done by the 49ers, who beat the Rams 24-16 in Week 6 and didn’t allow a sack to Donald or any other defender.
San Francisco sent plenty of double-teams to block Donald (and the occasional triple-team using tight end George Kittle), but he was best contained when the 49ers got the ball out quickly. According to Next Gen Stats, San Francisco quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo got the ball out in an average of 2.38 seconds, and a combination of those short, shallow passes and runs to the perimeter kept Donald away from the ball whether he beat his blockers or not.
“He was definitely influencing the game, but in a lot of instances he wasn’t necessarily at the point of attack, and in some cases he’s on the backside,” McVay said.
That game was the latest example of a team going to extremes to stop Donald from disrupting its quarterback. It’s been the rare successful one this season. The Dolphins—and the rest of the Rams’ future opponents—may try to copy Kyle Shanahan’s strategy for mitigating Donald’s impact, though that’s easier said than done. If they can’t do that, well, there’s more bad news: According to Donald, he’s always early to the bus.