Despite all the high-profile mercenaries the Los Angeles Rams acquired during their run to Super Bowl LVI, the single biggest difference-maker is one they drafted in 2014: Aaron Donald. He’s not just the best at what he does, he’s the most impactful individual defender on the planet — and the Cincinnati Bengals’ offensive line might not be able to slow him down.
Donald’s credentials are impeccable. Aside from making the Pro Bowl in every one of his eight professional seasons and being named first-team All-Pro seven years running, he’s won AP Defensive Player of the Year three of the last four seasons. His tape backs up all the hardware, too; Pro Football Focus graded him as its best pass-rushing defensive lineman, fourth-best run-stopping defensive lineman and No. 1 overall defensive player of 2021.1
Donald doesn’t just pass the eye test, either. His 12.5 regular-season sacks tied for seventh-most in the NFL, and according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, his 84 tackles from the defensive line ranked third. He ranked second among all front-seven defenders in pass rush win rate and tied for eighth in disrupted dropback rate.2
But ESPN’s Video Analysis Team saw Donald generate pressure on only 10.5 percent of his pass rushes, good for 22nd in the league.3 That’s just 0.1 percentage points more than new Ram Von Miller and 1 point less often than their teammate Leonard Floyd. If Donald is beating blockers more often than everyone but Dallas Cowboys edge rusher Micah Parsons, why is Parsons’s league-best pressure rate almost twice as high (18.3 percent)?
Teams put a lot more blockers in front of Donald.
“These guys triple-team [Donald],” Miller told reporters in his introductory press conference. “I’ve been getting triple-teamed for the last 10 years. That’s six people right there. And we still got Leonard Floyd and all the other guys. So, it’s going to be fun.”
Opponents aren’t quite committing six blockers to just Donald and Miller. But as an interior lineman, Donald gets double-teamed more often than ends — and far more than stand-up rushers like Parsons and Floyd. Only five defenders faced double-teams more often on pass-rush snaps than Donald, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group. Yet nobody beat double-teams more often:
Double-teaming Donald is necessary to slow him down, but it isn’t exactly sufficient. He beat solo blockers a league-high 34.2 percent of the time, and his win rate against double-teams was still a league-best 23.1 percent — the same as Haason Reddick’s eighth-ranked overall rate. As Miller implied, the interior threat presented by Donald limits how often opponents can put more than one body between any other Ram and their quarterback.
For the Cowboys, Parsons was double-teamed on 21.4 percent of his pass rushes. But Miller faced two opponents on only 7.5 percent of his rushes for the Rams, and Floyd was double-teamed just 11.6 percent of the time. Because Donald was doubled on a whopping 64 percent of his pass-rush snaps, his wingmen on the edge each got to rush one-on-one about nine pass rushes out of 10 — and Donald got through the line more often than anyone but Parsons anyway. No wonder Los Angeles led the league in ESPN’s pass-rush win rate.
It’s a brutal matchup for the Bengals, who have one of the worst offensive lines in football. Their team pass-block win rate was third-lowest in the league this regular season. Pro Football Focus graded Cincinnati as the 25th-ranked pass-blocking team, with grades in the 50s (and below) for every regular contributor save left tackle Jonah Williams.
Center Trey Hopkins has been a recent bright spot, posting pass-protection grades above 70 in four of the past five games — including a 75.3 in the AFC championship game. He’s been asked more regularly to help out platooning right guards Jackson Carman and Hakeem Adeniji, whose pass-blocking grades have been a miserable 45.9 and 38.9, respectively. During this five-game run of good form for Hopkins, he’s blocked in tandem on 85.7 percent of Cincinnati’s dropbacks. That’s not only much higher than his regular-season rate of 81.4 percent, it’s higher than any NFL lineman’s regular-season double-team rate.
But it hasn’t done much good. Though Hopkins’s pass-block win rate over the last five games has improved to 95.8 percent, the Bengals’ team rate was still just 53.1 percent — which, had that been their regular-season number, would have only bumped them up from 30th to 29th. Cincinnati just doesn’t have anybody, or any combination of anybodies, who can keep Donald and company away from quarterback Joe Burrow for very long.
If Los Angeles wins, three of its hired-gun Pro Bowlers — Matthew Stafford, Odell Beckham Jr. and Eric Weddle — would get their first Super Bowl rings.4 But Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris said the team is focused on delivering a title to the player who’s been here all this time.
“This building wants to win for Aaron Donald to create more mystique to his legacy and what he’s done,” Morris told the Associated Press. “We want to win for Aaron Donald.”
But Donald might win it for them first.
Check out our latest NFL predictions.