The Ravens and the Los Angeles Rams will be trading targets Monday night.
The Rams want to keep an eye on Ravens second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson, who has become one of the most dangerous offensive players in the NFL.
The Ravens will focus on Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who was named Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year in 2017 and 2018. While Jackson is an NFL Most Valuable Player candidate, there are some who consider Donald the best player in the league. Period.
“He is built like a brick house and strong as hell,” said former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, now an NFL analyst for ESPN. “There is no question he is the best defensive player in the league, and certainly the league’s most explosive. You can’t block him one-on-one. Impossible.”
That’s the task for the Ravens on Monday night. The 6-foot-1, 280-pound Donald is sixth on the Rams in tackles with 35 and has been on a tear lately, with seven of his eight sacks coming in the past five weeks as Los Angeles fights to stay in contention for a wild-card berth.
But don’t be misled by the sack totals. Donald has 16 quarterback hits and a league-leading 16 tackles for loss. It’s hard to determine whether his biggest asset is strength or quickness.
Ryan says it’s both.
“He is not the tallest guy in the world, and actually that helps him because he has that trigger. He is dialed in so much that he explodes off the snap,” Ryan said of Donald, the 13th overall pick in the 2014 draft out of Pittsburgh.
“We used to have this expression that our defensive linemen needed to beat the offensive line off the ball, and that’s what he does,” Ryan said. “He isn’t small, but short, and uses that to his advantage because he works leverage.”
Because of his size, there’s a chance that Donald could get lost among the humanity on the line of scrimmage. But Donald never stays blocked, and he is so fast that he gives new meaning to the term “space-eater.”
The Rams also move him along the line of scrimmage, which causes problems for most teams.
“He makes moves in tight areas better than anybody, probably, in the league, with the way he rushes the passer, and also in the run game,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “So, the challenge is blocking him.
“The other thing we have to do is know where he’s at. He’s been everywhere on the defensive line. So, yes, that’s a big one, but not just him. They have a heck of a front, really good linebackers.”
The Ravens can dictate some terms. Donald is a three-technique tackle, and the Rams like to put him on the same side as the tight end. If the Ravens put Mark Andrews or Nick Boyle on the right side, Donald might spend a lot of time on the outside shoulder of Ravens right guard Marshal Yanda.
Now that matchup is worth the price of admission. Yanda is a 13-year veteran and has been named to the Pro Bowl seven times. Once he is done playing, he will be a serious candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Yanda welcomes the challenge.
“Most guys in this league are competitors, and I’m definitely a very competitive guy,” Yanda said. “I’m excited for the challenge. Obviously, we all understand who he is as a player, and I definitely respect him, but I’m going to do my best. I’m going to put my best foot forward. Obviously, I’m not out there alone. We have 11 guys. We have a defense, a special teams [group] and a coaching staff. We’ll attack the entire time with full effort.”
The Ravens will do other things to help slow Donald. Center Matt Skura will probably turn the protection and step toward Donald’s side during every pass play. The Ravens might do a lot of combination blocking on Donald, which the New England Patriots were successful in doing in Super Bowl LIII.
Ryan likes Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who had the same position with the Buffalo Bills when Ryan was coach for the 2015 and 2016 seasons.
“Greg Roman has run into these types of players in the past. I’ve seen him wreck [Houston Texans star] J.J. Watt a couple of times,” Ryan said. “You can run a lot of wham blocks, where the tight end comes across the formation to block him. You can run a lot of traps inside with the tight ends. Greg might chip on him in pass protection with a back, which a lot of people don’t like to do. I can assure you Greg is not going to let him ruin his day.
“Donald can’t be handled one-on-one. When he starts winning the battles, then Lamar has to do his thing. He either has to move or release the ball.”
Ryan likes what the Ravens are doing offensively with Jackson. A lot of teams run zone reads or run-pass options, but the Ravens have gone completely old school, with the quarterback sometimes running sweeps.
“The Ravens offense is 11-on-11 football at its best, where the quarterback is a threat at all times,” Ryan said. “It’s fun to watch.”
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When asked how he would slow the Ravens offense and Jackson, Ryan said with a smile: “Oh, I have a way, and I’ll let you know if I ever play against him.”