ATLANTA – There have been few players in the NFL who have consistently impacted game the way Aaron Donald has for the Rams. The defensive tackle signed a mammoth extension in the summer coming off a season that saw him win the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year award, and he responded by topping his 2017 performance.
Donald led the NFL 20.5 sacks, a ridiculous number for an interior defensive lineman, and he wreaked havoc on a weekly basis. Bill Belichick talked about Donald before the Patriots left for Atlanta, and the Patriots coach said he was "pretty much unblockable."
Perhaps Donald's impact was best described by the guy who will spend two weeks trying to figure out how to contain him, Patriots longtime offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia.
"I don't think you have to show them much other than let the tape run and, OK, this is it," Scarnecchia said. "This is a guy you can't make mistakes on. You can't set too far outside because he'll undercut you. You have to get into him, and that's not easy. And not only you have to get into him in the run game, you have to sustain because he won't be blocked. He takes great pride in finishing plays."
Making matters worse, Donald is not alone in the inside. Next to him is Ndamukong Suh, another athletic interior defender who is capable of making plays when he's motivated. Suh also has a reputation as a chippy player, which can sometimes affect the guys assigned to block him.
All of this adds up to a difficult assignment for the Patriots interior offensive linemen. Center David Andrews will be flanked by Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason, and that trio will have its hands full.
"Aaron Donald is up for MVP consideration, which is pretty remarkable for a defensive lineman," Thuney said. "He's just such a combination of speed and strength and such a hard-nosed football player. It's going to take a team effort.
"Suh has been in the league a while. He's very strong and active and plays really hard. So, we have to work together for all 60 minutes and focus in on each play and take it play by play."
Donald is certainly the focal point. At 6-1, 285 pounds he's undersized for the position, but as Thuney noted his athleticism sets him apart. He's consistently quicker off the ball than most of the players who block him, and he's equally dangerous stopping the run as he is getting after the passer.
"I'm not sure about style but he makes a lot of plays, he's able to get through double teams and is just a relentless player" Thuney added. "We have to really focus and work together."
Tom Brady has been protected well during the postseason. He has yet to be sacked in 90 passing attempts, but Donald expressed some confidence that his teammates on the back end will help him break that streak.
"We've got our secondary, and they're going to lock things down and give us opportunities to get to [Brady]. We've just got to take him down when he holds the ball," Donald said. "You can't let him get comfortable. You've got to get him off the spot. He's a great quarterback, but if you put pressure on him, then, just like anybody else, it'll be a tough day for him."
The Rams have been significantly better defensively since the bye week, allowing nearly 100 fewer yards per game from Weeks 13-17, and they've played their best in the postseason. The ability to dial up the pressure and dominate against an offensive line that has been impenetrable in recent weeks will determine whether or not the Rams, who finished 13-3 during the regular season, can upset the favored Patriots.
"You've got myself, you got Dante [Fowler], you got Michael Brockers, you got Suh. There's a lot of guys you've got to worry about," Donald said. "We're going to do our job and get after them."
"It's a great task for us," added Suh, who finished with 4.5 sacks. "I'm excited about it. I look forward to it. First and foremost, we need to shut down the run. Until we take care of that, we won't have the opportunity to take care of Tom."