Los Angeles Rams DT Aaron Donald is a Pittsburgh legend. Donald was born and raised in Pittsburgh and even became a All American player for his hometown Pittsburgh Panthers. After being drafted with the 13th overall selection in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft by the then St. Louis Rams, Donald enjoyed immediate success. He was named the 2014 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and also made the Pro Bowl that initial season, a feat he has managed to repeat after each of his five seasons. He is a first team All Pro the last four years running and was named the 2017 AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year last season.
Aaron Donald is the best defensive player in the game today, without a doubt and by a large margin. He is a dominating presence on the field, evidenced by his league leading 20.5 sacks this season from his defensive tackle position. That single season total is the all time record for a defensive tackle, another reason he is the highest paid defensive lineman in NFL history. Donald has to be considered the favorite to win the Defensive Player of the Year award for a second consecutive season.
What makes Donald a nearly unstoppable force on the field is his unique physical and athletic attributes. Donald is undersized for a interior lineman, both in height and weight. Much like James Harrison, he uses his low center of gravity to it's full advantage. Also like Harrison, Donald possesses superior strength and explosion. His short area quickness is unmatched and, as if that wasn't impressive enough, he has the 40 yard dash record at the combine for a defensive tackle. He blazed a 4.68 time in setting the record.
Donald's five professional seasons of sustained excellence has resulted in his name being mentioned in conversations along side some of the all time greats. Players such as Bob Lilly, Merlin Olsen, Alan Page, and my personal pick for the greatest DT of all time, Mean Joe Greene. This Sunday Donald has a coveted opportunity to make sure his name stays right there in that rarified air.
Fans old enough to remember Olsen and Page know they were great players who enjoyed long and successful careers, but neither player was able to win a Super Bowl. There is a certain level of immortality that comes with being a Super Bowl champion. The knowledge that your name will forever be associated with being a champion, especially for those individuals who proved integral to their team's success. Aaron Donald definitely fits that description for the Rams.
At first glance, Sunday's match up with the Patriots appears to be a good news, bad news situation for the Rams.
The good news is the Rams may be better equipped to neutralize the Patriots offense than any team in the league. It is common knowledge the key to beating Tom Brady is making him move his feet. He likes a clean pocket, and is at his best when he can step up without congestion. Last Super Bowl the Philadelphia Eagles were unable to pressure Brady consistently throughout the game and he put up huge numbers in the loss, even without a couple of his biggest weapons. The Rams definitely want to avoid a repeat of that performance if possible.
The Rams have a superior DC in Wade Phillips and a defense that matches up well with the Patriots. Along side superstar Aaron Donald is fellow defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, a duo who should be able to collapse the pocket and make Brady uncomfortable throughout the game.
Brady also destroys zone defenses, but the Rams have a strong set of defensive backs lead by Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, so they should be able to effectively match up in man coverage. Throw in some athletic linebackers, including breakout ILB Cory Littleton, to hopefully limit the impact of TE Rob Gronkowski and RB James White out of the backfield, and the Rams appear to match up well across the board. That is the good news.
The bad news is the Rams will be facing the best coach in the business, Bill Belichick. He has had two weeks to develop a gameplan, and I expect he is extra motivated this year, coming off last season's loss and looking across the field at a young challenger in Rams HC Sean McVay, a offensive mastermind and a man who would be king.
Belichick always takes one of the things you do best away, and makes you adjust accordingly. Can Belichick devise a strategy to neutralize Aaron Donald and prevent him from wrecking havoc in the Patriots backfield? Can Donald rise to the occasion and use his immense talents to help the Rams win the title? The answers to these questions may be the most intriguing development in the game and go a long way in deciding the victors.
It sure would be a great side story if the hometown kid helped the Steelers remain the only franchise with 6 Super Bowl titles by defeating the Evil Empire. I for one will be rooting big time for the young man to do just that.