For the third time in four seasons, Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald was named the AP Defensive Player of the Year joining Lawrence Taylor (1981, 1982, and 1986) and J.J. Watt (2012, 2014, 2015) as the only players to win the award three times in their career. For Donald, winning the award a few more times in the near future seems imminent.
In his seven seasons in the league, Donald has now totaled 85.5 sacks, 131 tackles for loss, 201 quarterback hits, and 19 forced fumbles. Additionally, Donald was selected as another first-team All-Pro, becoming the first player since Reggie White (1986-1991) to be an All-Pro for six straight seasons.
“It’s a blessing,” Donald said in an interview with the media. “Anytime you’re rewarded for the body of work you put in and people notice, you’re going to be happy about that. You’re accomplishing great things built into a legacy.”
Donald has shown season after season how much of a defensive force he can be on the line of scrimmage and 2020 was no different despite a few games of underperformance. He finished tied for second in the league with 13.5 sacks, was tied for sixth with 14 tackles for loss, tied for fourth with 28 quarterback hits and led the league with 98 total pressures, according to Pro Football Focus.
Weeks leading up to the announcement, experts believed Pittsburgh Steelers’ All-Pro linebacker T. J. Watt would take home the prestigious award after a stellar defensive season himself. Watt led the NFL with 15 sacks and 23 tackles for a loss.
“He’s a hell of a football player,” Donald said in praise of Watt. “He’s been playing lights out, consistently and that’s two years back-to-back I felt like he had dominant seasons. I respect his game, the way he plays, and hopefully, he continues to play at a high level like that and continues to be consistent because I know that organization loves when he’s making plays. I wish nothing but the best for him.”
Looking at just the stats, yes, Watt had the better numbers. Obviously, the stats are important and can tell us the results of a play. What they don’t show is how the player actually got there or what he had to overcome to record a specific stat. A player beating a double-team and hitting the quarterback is equivalent to being the closest defender to the ball when that same quarterback goes out of bounds inches behind the line of scrimmage. Both get counted as a sack.
The more dominant he played, the more covered he became. According to Seth Walder (Sports Analytics Writer) of ESPN, Donald was double-teamed about 70.5% of the time, a 5% increase from a season ago. But despite being double- and triple-teamed often, #99 has continued to find ways to slip into opposing backfields pressuring the quarterback or stopping the run.
The increased double coverage on Donald paid dividends all season for his defensive teammates who found themselves with several untouched opportunities to tackle the opposing quarterback or running back.
The Rams surprised many, finishing the regular season at 10-6 and second in the NFC West. Surprising losses to the 49ers (Week 12) and Jets (Week 15) may have been the difference in the Rams actually hosting a playoff game vs having to travel.
Even without home-field advantage, Donald and company provided even more shock to the football world, following a Wild-Card weekend upset win, 30-20, over the 3-seeded Seattle Seahawks. In the game, Donald recorded three tackles and two sacks before suffering a rib injury in the third quarter and taking him out for the remainder of the contest.
As the week progressed, nothing was going to stop Donald from playing in a playoff game at the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field, living up to his aptly nickname of “The Terminator”. Unfortunately, fresh off the bye-week, the top-seeded Green Bay Packers came into the NFC Divisional round and completely dominated the Rams by a final score of 32-18. At the game’s end, Donald was seen emotional knowing his ultimate goal was once again tarnished.
“You want to do everything you can to help your team,” Donald said. “Having an injury, I felt like I wasn’t able to play at my best and do what I could do. I felt like I let my team down. If anything, it motivates you to work that much harder and try to find ways to keep myself healthy and come back to that stage to be at my very best.”
The recognition of the award does not go unnoticed in Donald’s eye, understanding the honor it is to be named one of the best players in the league, let alone, on multiple occasions. Tack on the fact that the Rams are considered to be one of the top defensive teams overall, Donald continues to be inspired to one day claim the only prize in the sport that truly matters: the Lombardi Trophy.
“I know I still have a lot of work to do and there’s more room for improvement,” Donald said. “The ultimate goal is to be holding that trophy up…that’s what I’m chasing and what I want to accomplish. It’s what my teammates are chasing and until we accomplish that feat, I’m not going to be too satisfied.”
The Rams offseason is already in full swing, with a new quarterback under center and changes in the coaching staff. Not to mention Tuesday’s official announcement of Super Bowl LVI taking place at SoFi Stadium next February.
For the Rams and Aaron Donald, the plan for the upcoming season is simple: it’s Super Bowl victory or bust.
Editor’s note: Featured image of Los Angeles Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald in action against the Buffalo Bills. Photo credit: Los Angeles Rams