Ravens head coach John Harbaugh holds press conference on November 21 before team practice at Under Armour Performance Center.
The Los Angeles Rams’ Aaron Donald has been an annual Pro Bowl selection since 2015, his second season in the NFL. But Ravens center Matt Skura had an inkling of Donald’s potential before the defensive lineman turned pro.
In the first quarter of an Atlantic Coast Conference clash between Skura’s Duke Blue Devils and Donald’s Pittsburgh Panthers on Sept. 21, 2013, Duke marched to Pittsburgh’s 12-yard line. But as quarterback Brandon Connette took the snap from Skura, then a redshirt sophomore, and began to run a read-option play with running back Josh Snead, Donald barreled into the backfield and tackled both of them at the same time.
Ravens center Matt Skura (Duke) reminded reporters today that he played Aaron Donald (Pitt) in college. He was even more unfair then than he is now. https://t.co/x5lPyrMDfC
That play continues to resonate with Skura, who missed the block on the senior All-American and Chuck Bednarik Award winner.
“I was like, ‘All right, this guy is pretty legit,’ ” the 6-foot-3, 315-pound Skura recalled with a wry grin before the Ravens opened practice Thursday afternoon in preparation for Monday night’s game in Los Angeles. “I just saw a flash before my eyes, and he already made the play. And I know he’s gotten bigger and faster and stronger since then. So it’s going to be fun.”
“Fun” is not the usual keyword opposing offensive linemen have associated with tangling with Donald. In less than six seasons, the 6-1, 280-pound defensive tackle has won the league’s Defensive Rookie of the Year award, been named the Defensive Player of the Year in 2017 and 2018, and been voted by his peers as the top player in the NFL in 2019.
Donald is on pace to finish the season with about 13 sacks, which would fall well short of the NFL-best 20½ he had a year ago — a record for defensive tackles. But with a league-leading 16 tackles for loss, he could exceed the career-high of 25 he had last season, and he is currently Pro Football Focus’ top pass rusher and run stopper among interior defenders.
Seven-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda compared Donald favorably with defensive tackle Geno Atkins when he was named to seven Pro Bowls with the Cincinnati Bengals and defensive end J.J. Watt when he was the league’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2012, 2014 and 2015.
“He has it all,” the 6-4, 305-pound Yanda said of Donald. “He has speed, strength, quickness. He definitely has the whole package. He’s the No. 1 defensive player in the NFL for a reason. He definitely commands that respect.”
Since a quiet start with only one sack, four quarterback hits and 13 tackles (five for loss) in his first five starts, Donald has regained his intimidating form for the Rams. He has totaled seven sacks, 11 quarterback hits and 22 tackles (11 for loss) in his past five starts in addition to two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and a safety.
Rams coach Sean McVay said that while Donald is blessed with talent and a strong work ethic, there is another character trait that stands out.
“The ability to say he never lets complacency set in,” McVay said Wednesday during a conference call with Baltimore media. “He’s always challenging himself. No one is a bigger critic of Aaron Donald than he is of himself. And I just think that consistent energy that he brings every single day, that mindset and mentality, accompanied with his skillset, is what makes him so unique and special.”
In Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ 3-4 scheme, Donald is regarded as a three-technique defensive tackle, lining up on the outside shoulder of a guard to split the guard and tackle and collapse the pocket. His versatility, however, gives Phillips the flexibility to move Donald all along the line of scrimmage.
“The challenge is blocking him. The other thing we have to do is know where he’s at,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “As you said, he’s everywhere. He’s been everywhere on the defensive line. So, yes, that’s a big one.”
Yanda pointed out that Donald employs three different moves to break down opposing blockers.
“Most guys have one or two really good moves, whether [the] bull rush is their main way they win, and then they’ll have a change-up move,” Yanda said. “He has an outside move, a bull rush and an inside move that are all very, very, very effective. So that’s what makes him really good.”
Donald isn’t alone, though, as he is complemented by outside linebackers Clay Matthews (seven sacks and eight quarterback hits) and Dante Fowler Jr. (6½, 9) and defensive end Michael Brockers (1½, 6). Their presence, Skura said, might force the Ravens to give up any notion of double-teaming Donald on a consistent basis.
“You see with all the people they play, sometimes you’re going to have to have that one-on-one battle with him, and that’s just part of it,” he said. “But yeah, it’s got to be a group effort, and that’s going to be our biggest task — taking care of him and also the rest of their D-line because they’re pretty loaded up front.”
Then again, the Ravens aren’t exactly wallflowers against opposing defenses. The offense leads the league in scoring (34.1 points) and rushing (203.8 yards) and ranks second overall (428.6 yards). According to PFF, quarterback Lamar Jackson not only leads his peers in passer rating on throws with less than 2.5 seconds in the pocket (143.1), but also leads all passers in passer rating on throws with more than 2.5 seconds in the pocket (141.0).
Summing up the sentiments of his teammates, Yanda said he is eager to test himself against an opponent like Donald.
“Most guys in this league are competitors, and I’m definitely a very competitive guy,” he 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.”