ATLANTA – Rewind to October 2017, the Thursday evening before the Los Angeles Rams’ Week 6 road game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Rams head coach Sean McVay will take it from there.
“It was around 10 o’clock. Everybody was gone. Guys were able to get out a little earlier because we had finished putting in the red-zone plan,’’ McVay said this week.
“I went into the defensive line [meeting] room because the light was still on. And there was Aaron, in there studying the guard sets on known passing situations. The right- and left guard sets.’’
The extra film work paid off four days later, when the Rams All-Pro defensive tackle registered 12 quarterback pressures, including a sack and four hits on Jags quarterback Blake Bortles, in a 27-17 victory.
“He loves it,’’ McVay said. “He loves football. You see it in the way he practices. I remember something my grandpa [former 49ers general manager John McVay] said when I asked him once how they were able to sustain a certain level of success" in San Francisco.
“He said, ‘Because our best players were the example of what it looked like to do something right, and everybody else fell in line. Because that was the standard, and nobody was above that.’
“Aaron epitomizes that. He’s a great leader, not because of what he says, but because of what he does.’’
On Saturday night, less than 24 hours before he takes the field with his Rams teammates to play the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII, the biggest game of his life, Donald is expected to be named the NFL defensive player of the year for the second straight season.
There was a little bit of mystery to the announcement last year. There is absolutely none this year. With apologies to J.J. Watt and Khalil Mack and the Eagles’ Fletcher Cox, this was a one-horse race.
Donald, who had a league-high 20½ sacks and a league-high 106 quarterback pressures (according to Pro Football Focus), and who, despite being one of the smallest defensive tackles in the league (6-1, 265 pounds), had the second highest grade against the run (according to PFF) among interior linemen, is, hands down, the best defensive player in the game right now.
Patriots offensive coordinator Dante Scarnecchia has been burning the midnight oil the last two weeks, desperately trying to come up with a plan for neutralizing the man his boss, Bill Belichick, has called “pretty much unblockable.’’
Two weeks ago, Donald and his interior linemate, Ndamukong Suh, wreaked havoc on the Saints in the Rams’ 26-23 overtime victory in the NFC championship game.
Donald had four pressures on quarterback Drew Brees, including three hits. And the constant double-team pressure he drew allowed Suh to record 1½ sacks.
Together, they held the Saints’ dangerous running back tandem of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram to 46 yards on 17 carries.
“He’s played as well at that three-technique position as anybody we’ve seen in years,’’ Saints coach Sean Payton said of Donald. “Arguably, and I don’t know if it’s even an argument, he’s the best defensive player in football today, with his numbers and his production and the impact he has on a game.
“It shows up in the run game, and it shows up in the pass game. It’s a challenge trying to slow him down.’’
Donald’s tireless work ethic comes from all of the people who thought he was too small to succeed. Despite registering 11 sacks and 28½ tackles for losses his senior year at Pitt, NFL scouts were worried he’d get his butt whipped as a three-technique in the NFL.
One scouting report suggested he would “get ground up by double teams.’’ The nicest thing another one could say was that he was “short and scrappy.’’
He was considered a second-round prospect until he dominated at the 2014 Senior Bowl. He showed up at the scouting combine six weeks later at a bulked-up 285 pounds and ran a 4.68 40 and benched 225 pounds 35 times.
Yet, he went unclaimed until the Rams took him with the 13th overall pick. The only reason the Rams were brave enough to take him was because it was the second of two first-round picks. With the second overall selection, they took Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson, who is on his third team and never has lived up to expectations.
“When I got into the league as a rookie, I had guys break down film for me of [Hall of Famers] Warren Sapp and John Randle and guys like La’Roi Glover, who had similar body types as me," Donald said. "I wanted to see how they did it and try to learn from them.’’
He has learned well -- and has been unstoppable.
“I can play at 280,’’ he said. “I can play at 275. This year, I played at 265. I just play my game. No matter what I weigh, I just play at a high level and stay strong.’’
Having Suh, who the Rams signed to a one-year, $14 million deal last spring, alongside him has benefited both players.
“It’s been good,’’ Donald said. “One of the best things we do together is we communicate well. If he sees something that I miss, we’ll talk when we both are out [of the game]. Having that nonstop communication is real important.’’
Said Suh: “We’ll come to the sideline, and there are things I might not see or he might not see. We just talk about them and adjust, look at the iPads, and go from there.