Film Room
Analysis beyond the numbers

Film Room: Aaron Donald

Film Room: Aaron Donald
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Charles McDonald

Superheroes come in all shapes and sizes. From Spider-Man to the Hulk to Superman to Captain America, superheroes come with their unique strengths and weaknesses. However, the most infallible heroic creation of them all is none other than Aaron Donald, the extraterrestrial wrecking ball who bears the Rams' Millennium Blue and New Century Gold 16 times a year.

Donald is a bit different than most superheroes. He wasn't created with sugar, spice, and everything nice. He doesn't have to work within the confines of the established system to vanquish opposing offensive lines. Since being drafted with the 13th overall pick in 2014, Donald has routinely taken a baseball bat, sledgehammer, and brass knuckles to NFL offenses. This season under defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has been no different, and Phillips is allowing Donald to play a style of freelance football that has made him more dangerous than ever.

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In one-gap schemes, front-seven defenders slide into their run fits like a game of Connect Four. Each defender is assigned a gap that he is being trusted to hold in the event of a run play.

Seeing it laid out with the diagram makes it a bit easier to get conceptualize the responsibilities of each front-seven defender. Phillips has an interesting way of employing run fits. Phillips is known for catering to his defensive talent (as any good coach does) and he treats Donald in the same manner that he treated J.J. Watt in Houston.

Look at the alignment of the linebacker Mark Barron behind Donald (between Seattle's right guard, No. 75 Oday Aboushi, and right tackle, No. 76 Germain Ifedi). He's not "in" a gap, he's stacked behind Donald so that he can read and react according to Donald's movement. Phillips doesn't want to restrict a dominant defensive player to the confines of the scheme, he allows truly special players to have some wiggle room with the defensive maneuvers they'd like to make. Whichever gap Donald takes, Barron will just take the opposite.

Barron's read doesn't even matter on this play. Donald takes one step up the field into the B gap before violently stepping back into the A gap, tossing Aboushi, and slinging Eddie Lacy down for a 4-yard loss.

What's crazy is how simple Donald makes the entire play look. He's able to rid himself of a 300-pound offensive lineman and whip down a 250-pound running back in about three seconds. That otherworldly athleticism (he ran a 4.68-second 40-yard dash at 285 pounds) allows him to be a devastating pass-rusher as well.

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When Donald (99) is presented with a "two-way go" opportunity, he is essentially impossible to block. He has the opportunity to rush either the A gap or the B gap on this play against the San Francisco 49ers, the game-clinching sack on an exciting Thursday night bout in Week 3.

Once the center turns towards Michael Brockers (90), Donald gets to pick which lane he's going to rush. Donald is on an island against 49ers right guard Brandon Fusco (63). After the Fusco lunges to get his hands on Donald, Donald dances around the guard and takes down Brian Hoyer for the sack.

Those are two plays in which Donald gets to freelance a bit and pick the gap he's going to shoot. When Donald plays more within the traditional structure of defensive alignments, he's still just as devastating. Take this sack against Blake Bortles in Los Angeles' Week 6 game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

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Donald is responsible for rushing the B gap against left guard Patrick Omameh (77) on this play. His natural leverage (Donald is a hair under 6-foot-1) allows him to get underneath the left guard's pads on his way to the quarterback. "Hands above eyes" is a key requirement to successful defensive line play. It establishes the hands in a position of power and allows the lower body to drive the offensive line back into the pocket.

After Donald establishes his leverage and begins to drive the guard into Blake Bortles' lap, he turns the corner like an edge rusher to swipe the ball out of Bortles' hands. Donald gets his hand in the perfect position to force a strip sack, but Omameh ends up recovering the ball. The lane integrity to stay in the B gap led to this near-turnover against the Jaguars.

Donald can also play within structure against the run.

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This play features more standard run fits by Donald and the gang. Like the first play against the Seahawks, every defender is responsible for a gap. Defensive linemen in one-gap schemes have what's called a "triangle read." The read key is the offensive lineman whom the defensive lineman is stepping towards, and the pressure key is the offensive lineman that's in play for a double-team or a backside scoop block. On this particular play, the pressure key (Ifedi, 76) is trying to reach the defensive end, so Donald only has to worry about his read key (Aboushi, 75).

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Again, Donald makes mincemeat out of Aboushi. Once the ball is snapped, he holds firm in his run fit without getting too far up the field. Typically, defensive linemen are taught to get a yard or so up the field and hold that position so they don't allow an opportunity for a big gain on the back end.

Donald waits for the ballcarrier (J.D. McKissic) to declare which gap he's going to hit, then accelerates toward the end of the line of scrimmage for a tackle for loss. The ease in which Donald is able to accelerate from a holding position on an offensive guard to a sprint to take down a running back seems pulled out of a video game.

Whether it's within structure or when he has the freedom to freelance a bit, Donald is an absolutely dominant force on the interior of the Rams' defense.

Donald is going into the last year of his contract. He held out for all of training camp and the Rams kept him on the sidelines in Week 1. It'll be interesting to see how Donald's contract situation unfolds throughout the season and into the offseason, but he's arguably the best defensive player in the league right now. Whatever the insane amount of money he receives, he will be worth every single penny. Truly dominant forces like Aaron Donald are nearly impossible to come by. May God have mercy on the offensive linemen he faces for the remainder of 2017.


16 comments, Last at 31 Oct 2017, 11:37pm

3 Re: Film Room: Aaron Donald

Eh, I don't think its just Donald. Brockers emerging this year really helps the cause. In previous years, I'd expect the Pats to just double team Donald (as far as they can) on every snap. But Brockers has shown this year that if you leave him one-on-one with a guard, he can wreck an offense's plans pretty thoroughly too. Having Quinn as the RDE and Donald as, primarily, the LDT makes things difficult for an offense - Quinn is good enough to worry most LTs, so they want the option of a double team, and its basically impossible to have a double team on a RDE and LDT without keeping a TE in to block.

I still think if we played the Pats (or a similar elite offense) our secondary isn't good enough to stop them. I imagine they'd just nickel and dime down the field with quick passes and make the DL pretty irrelevant. Since we swapped up the safeties (cutting Mo Alexander and putting John Johnson in to start) we have definitely improved (especially against the run), but I don't think our CBs are good enough to consistently a good offense without a lot of help from the DL. And Goff and the offense isn't good enough yet to trust us to hang with a great offense in a shootout.

I reserve the right to change my opinion after week 11, when we play the Saints. If we can hang with them I'll feel more confident (although we'll be in the middle of a Vikings/Saints/Texans run, so maybe I'll no longer be confident that we can make the playoffs).

4 Re: Film Room: Aaron Donald

Wow. That first clip is Marvel material.
In the two SBs, the Giants DB's were only decent and that's all they needed to be. Even with Welker in the slot, there just wasn't enough time for Brady to get the ball off. Guys like Donald who can generate inside pressure are pocket passers' worst nightmare.

The Pats lost Hightower for the season (again). His shoulder issues are almost certainly the reason he didn't get better offers in free agency. I'm almost certain that the Pats tried him at OLB to start the season was to protect that shoulder. It will be interesting to see how the defense goes without him.

8 Re: Film Room: Aaron Donald

i really don't understand the pats this year- you have a 40 year old quarterback and an offensive line that has been extremely effective in the short passing game; why the hell have you decided this is the time to switch to a deeper passing game that subjects your quarterback to a beating (almost suspect Belicheck knows you'll have to take Brady out on a cart, and he's forcing his hand a little bit)? I understand that edelman's loss is huuuuuge, and the other guys can't replicate what he did for them, but this approach seems unsustainable (watch them run the table and win the super bowl again). in this matchup, with how they've played this year, i'd take the rams

9 Re: Film Room: Aaron Donald

hypothetically, i agree. one of the things baseball stat guys have observed that i think transfers in general is that a characteristic of greatness is that they do things sooner than they ought to be able to (seahawks finished #1 in dvoa in wilsons first year and won the SB the next, steelers went 15-1 Rberger's first year and won SB the next, pats won SB in BBs second year, tb12 first year starting) if the 'learn to win' cliche is true in any sport, it's basketball, and even then not always (and it's really 'earn the respect of the refs' in that case)

11 Re: Film Room: Aaron Donald

Over the last 40 years, Belichik is the only guy I'd put on the same plane as Wade, in terms of defensive scheming, and I really like the Rams personnel. I'm not saing they are prohibitive favorites in the NFC, or even necessarily favorites, but this is a roster with outstanding talent, and it is now extremely well coached, after years of being coached very poorly, in larfe measure

12 Re: Film Room: Aaron Donald

Agree about the coaching and the talent on the roster, but given they have already lost at home to the Seahawks I don't think they can be considered favorites for their division, let alone the NFC. Seattle is flawed alright, but is still a strong team overall.

13 Re: Film Room: Aaron Donald

Comment was partly eaten...

Over the last 40 years, Belichik is the only guy I'd put on the same plane as Wade, in terms of defensive scheming, and I really like the Rams personnel. I'm not saying they are prohibitive favorites in the NFC, or even necessarily favorites, but this is a roster with outstanding talent, and it is now extremely well coached, after years of being coached very poorly, in large measure due to Fisher deciding to retire in about 2013, while still getting paid, and still supposedly working. I would not be surprised at all to see the Rams be on an upward trend all the way to February.

14 Re: Film Room: Aaron Donald

Do you really trust Goff? A Qb isn't prohibitive to winning the sb, but having a qb you can trust is pretty important. I don't trust Goff, even with McVay coaching and scheming the hell out of the offense. I feel like, down the line, a good defense will expose a schemed player eventually.

15 Re: Film Room: Aaron Donald

Lousy quarterbacking has been tolerable on occasion in the past, and there is a nontrivial chance that he won't be lousy. Llike I said, I'm not even claiming that they should be seen as NFC favorites; just that it would not be a big upset.

5 Re: Film Room: Aaron Donald

Didnt the rams use donalds 5th year option? I think theyve got another year to sort his contract out but yeah they do need to pay the man.