James Daniels was sitting at his locker Wednesday afternoon before practice intently studying video of the Rams on his tablet when the questions began: How is he going to protect Mitch Trubisky from menacing Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald?
The Bears rookie left guard figures to get most of the work blocking Donald on Sunday night when the Rams come to Soldier Field with an NFL-best 11-1 record. With Trubisky set to return after missing the last two games with a right shoulder injury, the offensive line needs to keep the quarterback upright.
Donald has been on such a tear, not only is he the leading candidate to win NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors for the second straight season, something accomplished only twice previously by J.J. Watt (2014-15) and Lawrence Taylor (1981-82), he could be a legitimate MVP candidate if Drew Brees and Patrick Mahomes split votes for a quarterback. No defensive player has won MVP honors since Taylor in 1986.
Donald leads the NFL with 16½ sacks, four more than the next defender, and has 12½ in the last six games. He spent most of last Sunday’s game at Ford Field in the Lions backfield, abusing rookie left guard Frank Ragnow, a first-round draft pick. Donald had two sacks, a third wiped out by a penalty, two additional tackles for a loss and a forced fumble that led to the decisive touchdown in a close game that turned into a blowout.
“He’s a player that when you turn on the tape, and you go through with your guys each week who the game-changers are, you put like three circles around him,” coach Matt Nagy said. “Because he’s a game-changer times three.”
It’s sometimes difficult to double-team Donald because he often attacks the outside shoulder of the guard. Even when he is double-teamed, he still creates train wrecks in the backfield. He whipped Lions right guard Kenny Wiggins and then center Graham Glasgow on his way to sacking and stripping Matthew Stafford on one play last week.
“I’m getting sleep, yeah,” Daniels said. “Trust your technique and you will be fine.”
According to STATS, Daniels, a second-round pick from Iowa, who has started six games and rotated in another three, has not allowed a sack this season. Right guard Bryan Witzmann, who has started the last four games, has allowed two sacks.
While edge rushers can be chipped by running backs and tight ends, you can’t get such help on interior pass rushers. If Donald starts at the outside shoulder of Daniels or Witzmann, it’s hard for center Cody Whitehair to help, and he’ll likely look to the other side where familiar Bears foe Ndamukong Suh will be.
Donald and Suh will twist and stunt from time to time, so the interior linemen will have to be ready for that because Donald is tremendously powerful and can put a lineman on his heels and quickly throw him to the ground. Against the 49ers, Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips even lined Donald up at defensive end. He defeated an offensive tackle and tight end on one play, a 280-pound game-plan wrecker coming off the edge.
Donald is a monster because he’s the quickest player off the ball in a league in which there are fantastic pass rushers 40 pounds lighter, and he can beat offensive linemen with his hands. He has developed as a technician at the point of attack where he can knock a lineman’s hands down and bull-rush him back into the quarterback or swim over the lineman. Even when a lineman gets a good chuck on Donald to start a play, he can finish with his arms wrapped around the quarterback because he counters better than anyone on the interior.
Quarterbacks can step up into the pocket to buy the split-second needed to release a pass when sensing edge pressure, but there’s no stepping up against Donald, which means we might see a lot of the agile Trubisky fleeing the pocket.
Witzmann struggled against the Giants and he has been uneven since replacing Kyle Long, who started the only previous time the Bears faced Donald — in 2015, a 37-13 victory for the Bears on a day when Donald had 1½ sacks. Witzmann will be put in positions to block Donald too.
Right tackle Bobby Massie said Phillips tries to create situations where his linemen are getting one-on-one blocks across the board by at least occupying the attention of each lineman. Whitehair can help if he’s uncovered, but the Rams will also get in five-man fronts, which ensures solo blocks across the board.
“It’s not the first time we have played a good defense,” Massie said. “Everybody is going to have to be on their stuff. You just have to get your hands on Donald. I’m not taking nothing away from him, but he’s not God. He’s been blocked before. He can be blocked. He’s a damn good player. He’s an animal, and from the three-technique? He’s a dog. You’ve just got to get your hands on him and block him. At the end of the day, that’s what needs to happen.”
Nagy was asked if he could provide help to Witzmann (and presumably Daniels) to keep Donald out of Trubisky’s lap.
“Well … I’m going to just keep that to me,” Nagy said, chuckling. “It’s a good question, though.”