'The genius and the beauty of Aaron Donald': Why opponents, coaches revered the retiring Ram


ENTERING HIS EIGHTH NFL season, one thing was missing from defensive tackle Aaron Donald’s litany of accomplishments: A Super Bowl ring.

And when he and the Los Angeles Rams reached Super Bowl LVI during the 2021 season, it was Donald who sealed the victory with one of the signature plays of his 10-year career, which came to an end on Friday when he announced his retirement.

On fourth down in a three-point game, Donald pressured Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow and forced an incomplete pass to essentially complete a 23-20 Rams win. His celebration will be remembered, too: he ran around with his arms outstretched and then pointed at his left ring finger, where his first Super Bowl ring would go.

But even before that title, Donald dominated offenses, earning three NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards, tied for the most in NFL history. The Super Bowl LVI ring was the last box to check on a career that will eventually see Donald’s bust in Canton, Ohio.

“He’s one of one,” Atlanta Falcons coach and former Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris told ESPN. “And not just because I coached him. It’s because of his impact on the game, his impact on the inside, on what he was able to do. You’ve got to put him up with the likeness of [Hall of Famers] Lawrence Taylor … ‘Mean’ Joe Greene. He’s in that walk of life.”

Drafted No. 13 overall out of Pitt by the St. Louis Rams in 2014, Donald went on to set the Rams’ franchise record with 111 career sacks. He was selected to the Pro Bowl in all 10 of his NFL seasons and named a first-team All-Pro in eight seasons. Donald was also the 2014 Defensive Rookie of Year.

According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Donald is one of two defensive players since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to earn a Pro Bowl selection in each of their first 10 NFL seasons, alongside Taylor (10).

Donald and Barry Sanders are the only players in NFL history to play at least 10 seasons and get selected to the Pro Bowl in each season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Sanders also played 10 seasons, retiring in 1998.

Morris got the feeling that Donald “had done all things he set out to do” on the football field.

“I can’t say I’m surprised, it’s just more of the shock value because he has so much left,” Morris said. “It sort of gives you that Gale Sayers, Barry Sanders kind of feel when a guy’s walking away when he really doesn’t have to. It’s just time for him.”

Despite showing he still can play at the highest level in the league and getting another Pro Bowl nod in 2023, Donald seems ready for whatever comes after his storied football career.

“Throughout my career, I have given my everything to football both mentally and physically — 365 days a year was dedicated to becoming the best possible player I could be,” Donald wrote in his announcement. “… As I turn my focus to a new chapter, I don’t know what the future holds, but I am excited about the off the field possibilities..”

ONE LOOK AT Donald and it’s easy to tell he had the physical attributes to dominate at the line of scrimmage. His workouts at the Rams facility will remain legendary, and newcomers often thought — or at least hoped — they could keep up.

Rams director of strength and conditioning Justin Lovett kept a list on his office whiteboard with 15 names on it. It’s “AD’s body count,” a list of players who tried — and failed — to complete a workout with Donald since Lovett was hired in 2020. During training camp in 2023, rookie defensive linemen Kobie Turner and Desjuan Johnson were added to the list.

Turner, who led NFL rookies in sacks last season, tried to match Donald during one of the first weeks of training camp. The nose tackle said he was doing some of the workout with Donald, “just at a slower pace.” But on the second day he caught a cramp halfway through.

“I got added to the list that day,” Turner said in September. “But he’s ridiculous. He’s in there all the time, in the mornings, all the time after practice. It’s just impossible to try to keep up with, but it’s a good thing to strive for, for sure.”

At 6-foot-1 and 280 pounds, Donald’s unmatched strength in the weight room translated onto the field.

“It’s his strength coupled with his size,” New York Giants guard Justin Pugh said in 2022. “Not many guys are pound per pound that strong at that size. You look at him and you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m looking down on him. He’s not that big.’ And then he has the get-off that’s quicker than any defensive end and he’s stronger than any defensive tackle.

“He has these rare attributes that is very unheard of on the inside. And most of times you think of an inside defensive lineman as just big, fat, run-stoppers. He’s changed that position. And he’s changed it and gotten a lot of guys paid to play that position.”

Part of what made Donald’s success so impressive was the attention he got from opposing defenses. According to ESPN Analytics/NFL Next Gen Stats, over the last five years, Donald was double-teamed a league-high 1,510 times as a pass rusher, or 135 more than any other player. He beat 186 of those within 2.5 seconds, 51 more than any other player (Chris Jones was second with 135).

“You always try to get four hands on him and he knows it and he wins anyway,” Morris said. “And he turns those double-teams into two separate one-on-ones. And he absolutely takes his time and never misses with his hands and can manipulate you and what you want to do on offense so much that he’s pretty much got you.

“And he knows what you want to do. And if he gets a chance to move around, he finds a way to get on one-on-one when you make a mistake and he makes you pay in the worst way.”

Over the last five years, the NFL average pass rush win rate against a single pass blocker was 17% for a qualified rusher. Donald posted an 18% pass rush win rate against double teams in that span, making him better against two pass blockers than the average pass rusher was against one over the last five years.

“He makes you pay in game-changing plays,” Morris said. “And that was the genius and the beauty of Aaron Donald.”

GAME-PLANNING AGAINST Donald was one of the most daunting tasks for an opposing coach.

Donald’s ferocity made opposing quarterbacks want to get rid of the ball faster than ever, Morris said, calling coaching against the future Hall of Famer “scary.”

“You did everything you could in the game plan to try to eliminate him from the game or not let him ruin the game,” Morris said. “And first play of the game you call a scat [with five offensive linemen blocking] and you turn the protection to him and he almost hits your quarterback on a three-step drop. And you’re like, that was awful and it’s going to be a miserable day.”

And it even was an issue for his teammates on the field when they were trying to practice because he was “always listening,” Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford said.

“He’s an intelligent player,” Stafford said in October. “He’s hearing our calls.”

During a Friday practice last season, Stafford was going against the Rams defense and made a call to double the defensive tackle. Donald moved to the other side. Stafford changed the call. Donald “got up and moved over.”

“I said, ‘I don’t care just double him,'” Stafford said. “I’m just like, he knows what’s coming. I’m just trying to find him and lend some help. Everybody’s got all sorts of different plans for it, whether it’s chipping with the back or sending the center in his direction, whatever it is. I’m sure he has seen it all and found a way to beat them all.”

Donald was so dominant on the practice field that he “absolutely ruins practices,” Morris said. “And you’ve got to take him out to get some things done on offense. And then by the time you get to the game, it’s all fun for him.”

DONALD RETIRES AFTER spending his entire NFL career with the Rams, quickly becoming the face of the franchise, especially in some lean years before the team hired Sean McVay as their head coach in 2017 and acquired Stafford in 2021.

And while his impact on the stat sheet and in games will be what his Hall of Fame career is remembered for, those inside the Rams building in 2023 will remember something else.

Last offseason, Donald sat down with Rams general manager Les Snead, McVay and vice president Tony Pastoors to discuss the changes coming to Los Angeles’ roster in 2023. The Rams knew they’d be “losing guys that have been big-time contributors” and that if Donald decided to play that season, the roster would look a lot different than the defenses he’s been playing on.

Donald’s reaction during that meeting resonated with Snead.

“He looked you in the eye and said, ‘Here’s the deal … I’m good [to continue playing], just make sure they care,'” Snead said.

The young roster that the Rams built around Donald through the draft invigorated him. Morris saw the enthusiasm of the young group show up time and time again, but no more than in Week 13 against the Cleveland Browns when Morris saw Donald and Turner skip off the field with their arms around each other after sharing a sack and a safety.

“I had never seen Aaron show that type of emotion, skipping with this guy and just youthful bliss for him,” Morris said. “And it really showed the impact in who he was and what he was trying to do. And I thought that was outstanding.”

Donald leaves behind a defense that had the only two rookies in the NFL with at least eight sacks: Turner and third-round pick Byron Young. To those still marveling at what he continued doing on the field, Donald’s retirement might have come as a shock after the Rams made a playoff run and the vet seemed rejuvenated. But going out as strongly as he came in might have been the goal all along.

“I don’t think he wants to see a whole lot of decline in this game on the way out,” Morris said. “He doesn’t want to be the old grizzly vet just fighting his way in the game. I think he always wants to be dominant. “



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