Packers plotting how to keep Rams' Aaron Donald from disrupting offense
GREEN BAY – Corey Linsley’s eyebrows raised involuntarily.
In Aaron Donald’s brief yet illustrious career, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year has hit or sacked the quarterback in 54 of his 69 regular-season games. One of the teams to keep the three-time All-Pro defensive tackle off their quarterback? The 2015 Green Bay Packers.
It was an odd stat the Packers’ center did not know, but much has changed since Oct. 11, 2015 when the Packers beat the Rams 24-10 at Lambeau Field. Linsley was just a second-year starter that year, flanked by T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton. The Rams and Donald played in St. Louis then, under different coaches in a 4-3 defensive scheme.
“He’s gotten a lot better at what he does,” Linsley said with a sheepish smile. “He’s having a hell of a year. One of the most dominant players in the NFL right now. Thinking back to that game, I thought we had a pretty good game plan. Honestly, they’re an entirely different team. The only person you can look back on is Aaron Donald.”
Yet for the Packers, once again keeping Donald away from Aaron Rodgers on Sunday will be paramount to having offensive success.
“The guy’s a dynamic player,” Packers guard Lane Taylor said. “This is my first time going against him and really studying him but he’s definitely a good player. I can see why he got paid $20 million.”
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After he sat out training camp for the second straight year, the Rams satisfied Donald with a six-year, $135 million extension. And after working back into form the first three games of the season (seven tackles, one quarterback hit), the 27-year-old has exploded into offensive backfields.
Over his last four games he has sacked the quarterback eight times, hit passers 12 times, recorded 10 tackles for loss and 19 total tackles.
“You’ve got to be aware of where he’s at,” Rodgers said. “He’s one of the more dominant players that the league has seen in a number of years, and then you pair that with a future Hall of Famer right next to him (Ndamukong Suh) who can dominate the game as well and has since his first year playing.”
For the Packers, the first part of preparing for Donald is being ready for Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. Long known for his 3-4 defensive front, Phillips has tailored his game plans to his talent – so Donald and the rest of the defensive line actually play more of a traditional four-man game up front.
“It’s an illusion. It’s not a 3-4,” Packers guard Byron Bell said.
The reason for the illusion is simple: Donald can remain in his preferred “3-technique” position, which means he lines up on the offside shoulder of a guard as opposed to moving further down the line to play off Packers tackles Bryan Bulaga or David Bakhtiari.
“It’s not a 3-4,” Bell reiterated. “It’s an illusion to throw guys off, get their eyes in places. It says it’s a 3-4 but it’s not. You’ve got play the personnel you’ve got. They play to their strength, and their strength is a good 3-technique.
“Teams get lost in the whole ‘3-4, who do they got?’ – just go out there and play your style of ball.”
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Donald’s positioning allows Suh and defensive end Michael Brockers (20 career sacks) to see more single blocks and also move to other spots on the line. Suh, 31, isn’t asked to anchor a defense anymore, but his power rush remains elite in one-on-one situations. Brockers is also widely respected for his ability in the Packers' offensive line room.
But the straw that stirs that pass-rush formula is Donald, and it’s not just the speed-to-power combination he has. It’s how he can use his leverage as a “shorter” player at 6-feet-1 and how good his footwork and hand actions are.
“He’s a dominant player,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said flatly. “Probably clearly one of the best or the best defensive players in the league.”
Add all that with what Linsley and Taylor say is an underrated part of his game, which is a motor that matches his athletic ability.
“One of the best defensive players, probably, of our generation,” Bell said. “He plays hard. He plays fast. He’s a great player.”