The Los Angeles Rams’ Aaron Donald is now getting MVP love in a year where there are high-flying offenses around the league and where QBs Drew Brees, Patrick Mahomes and Philip Rivers are having brilliant seasons. The Khalil Mack trade roundly is viewed as the move that has put the Chicago Bears in a position to win their first division title since 2010.
It’s rare to have two defenders at this stage of the season who are playing such crucial roles on their respective teams, but it’s fair to say that neither the 11-1 Rams nor the 8-4 Bears — who meet Sunday night at Soldier Field in what could be a fascinating playoff preview — would be close to the teams they are right now without the contributions of Donald and Mack, respectively.
Both players were paid handsomely this offseason, and each appears to be paying off in spades.
“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,” Bears head coach Matt Nagy said of Donald. “Because he’s a game-changer times three.”
Rams head coach Sean McVay sees similar game-altering ability in Mack, and they know they’ll see a lot of him Sunday night.
“When you look at a lot of these defensive linemen, I think one of the things that separates [Mack] from a lot of the guys is, he's playing almost every snap,” McVay said. “A lot of these guys are kind of just in-and-out, situational pass rushers. He plays with great urgency and juice every single play. He's playing the run.”
McVay is right. Mack was on a pitch count in Week 1 after being traded to the Bears one week early, having not had the benefit of a training camp or being allowed to steep in the defensive system. Mack has played 549 snaps this season, which is 67.9 percent of their defensive total.
But that also accounts for him missing two whole contests with injury (the first two he’s missed in his five NFL seasons) and being somewhat limited in two other games. In the past five contests, he’s been on the field for 296 of a possible 347 defensive snaps (85.3 percent), which included 178 snaps in an 11-day span between Weeks 10-12. He’s a thoroughbred to be sure.
Donald has similarly tremendous stamina. He’s been on the field for 680 of the Rams’ 761 defensive snaps so far this season (89.4 percent) and has never missed a game with injury. Donald sat out Week 1 amid a holdout at the start of the 2017 season, and the Rams sat him in the meaningless Week 17 game with a playoff spot locked up. Had he played in those two, Donald would be at 72 consecutive starts, although that would still put him behind the league’s interior DL leader — his teammate, Ndamukong Suh, at 111.
Together, Suh and Donald are quite the pair inside, taking turns last week wrecking the Lions. The Rams have talent on all levels of their defense, even if the numbers on the whole don’t match what the Bears have done to this point. Mack might be the clear lynch-pin on Chicago’s unit, but there could multiple other Pro Bowlers on that unit.
A Detroit horror film by Aaron Donald pic.twitter.com/d47C7Er9QA— Ted Nguyen (@FB_FilmAnalysis) December 5, 2018
Aaron Donald's ability to beat double teams on the regular is something I've never seen before. He either rushes so wide the center can't help or he just does this, and splits the double team. It's rare. He needs to get MVP votes.pic.twitter.com/e2v2oN06Lv— Geoff Schwartz (@geoffschwartz) December 3, 2018
Comparing Donald and Mack is really an exercise in futility, though. Donald is a short interior defensive lineman. Mack is a leaner-built edge defender. They have different games. So even as it appears that Donald has had the more productive season from a statistical standpoint, we still can examine how impactful they are to the schemes in which they’re playing.
First what you notice when watching Donald and Mack is that they’re in the hands of two masters, defensive coordinators Wade Phillips and Vic Fangio, who don’t ask them to do things that limit their rare, game-changing ability for the sake of being cute or creative. Mack might be asked to drop into coverage a bit more than we personally would like, but he’s shown to be capable of handling that duty, and his ball pursuit downfield is excellent for a player who regularly shows he can overpower burly offensive tackles at the point of attack.
We could bombard you with stats and eye-popping GIFs of how Donald and Mack dominate. Pick almost any game between them — except for the brief spell early this season where Mack’s ankle clearly limited him — and there are shocking plays from which to sample. Maybe a hundred between them, wild as that might sound, but it’s true.
But instead, let’s try to look at the variety of ways they can beat opposing offenses. The sheer variety of skills and traits they possess is in and of itself marveling.
When Mack arrived in Chicago a little more than a week prior to the opener via trade from the Oakland Raiders, it was a season-changing move for both teams. But as dominant as Mack was in Week 1, it was clear that his snap count was being watched closely at first and that his responsibilities were somewhat limited to attacking QBs Aaron Rodgers and DeShone Kizer.
But Mack wasted no time making his impact with an incredible opener at Green Bay, with a strip-sack (and recovery) and a pick-six. The only thing that has slowed him down is an ankle injury he suffered early in the overtime loss to the Dolphins, and he gutted through it the next week against the Patriots, when he was asked to drop into coverage more than rush the passer.
Even so, Mack has nine sacks in 10 games, an amazing five forced fumbles and two recoveries. In his past four games, he’s hit opposing quarterbacks seven time and tallied four sacks and two passes defended. Every time the Bears need a play, all eyes focus in on No. 52.
As he’s regained his health and absorbed the system, Mack has been asked to do more, including rushing from both sides of the line, aligning in different techniques, operate in stunts and twists and occasionally drop. It’s a nice changeup for Fangio to have Mack zone drop and buzz to the flat because he can not only do it with ease and be an effective defender in space, but it also presents offenses a different look that it must account for.
“Obviously, Khalil Mack is an outstanding player, and they do move him around a little bit,” McVay said. “He's moved around where he's sometimes on the left, sometimes on the right. …
“So, he's an excellent player, but I think it's that combination that you see of when the talent matches up with just the intrinsic motivation to compete hard every snap. And when you're playing almost every snap, he's got to be accounted for and you've got to know where he is because they do a nice job moving him around as well.
You saw this as early as Week 3 against the Arizona Cardinals, a game where the Bears’ defense came to the rescue in what could have been a devastating loss.
Mack made two massive plays in that game — a sack before the half that knocked Arizona out of field-goal range (something he’s now done a few times this season) and a strip-sack in the second half on what would be Sam Bradford’s final snap of the season. Both were tide-turning plays.
Have a look here at the strip-sack, which was just a great hustle play by Mack, who was double-teamed but worked his blockers out of the play and found the ball as the Bears started to take over the game.
But let’s take a closer look at his first sack of the game and how he won that battle. Mack is lined up in a 7-technique outside the outer shoulder of Cardinals LT D.J. Humphries. Watch as Mack flies off the snap and wastes no movement making a beeline for Bradford. The Bears are executing a T-E stunt here, with NT Eddie Jackson looping around Mack’s backside. But that becomes virtually irrelevant as Mack gains inside position with his speed rush.
This is your classic speed-to-power conversion rush as Mack says low — low man wins, after all — rips through Humphries’ initial block and then just bullies Iupati. Once you see Iupati’s body turned 90 degrees, that battle is over; Mack has already won before he lays a paw on Bradford. Even if Bradford were to have not pumped and reset, Mack likely affects the throw and perhaps causes an incompletion or interception. As it was, the Cardinals punted and wouldn’t score again that game.
More recently, Mack has regained his pass-rush juice and productivity. The Rams have clearly taken notice.
“He's got an unbelievable ability to kind of have a hesitation get-off and then come underneath,” McVay said. “Then, before you know it, it's a double swipe, he's up the field.
“He's got an array of different ways that he can beat you, and you feel the length when he long-arms people. But, he can really bend and turn an edge. Then, when he gets close to the quarterback, I mean, he is violently attacking that football.”
Here are two plays that demonstrate what McVay is talking about.
The first is that long-arm pass-rush move he mentioned, and it’s one of Mack’s go-to maneuvers. Although he’s not the longest defender you’ll find on the edge, Mack does possess decent height at 6-foot-3, with 33-inch arms and large hands (10 1/4-inch hands). But his effectiveness comes from quickness off the ball, excellent hand placement and usage and converting speed to power.
Time and time again watching Mack, you see him hit blockers on the rise and violently throttle tackles — and runners and quarterbacks, for that matter — backward. Here against the Vikings is a play where Mack doesn’t make a sack, but it’s a classic example of that long-arm move taking down LT Reilly Reiff.
We’re talking about a 6-foot-6, 305-pound tackle here, but Mack — who had flashed a bull rush and a quick dip on a stunt underneath on the previous two drives — uses the long arm to get into Reiff’s chest and knock him on his tail. Rushers are taught to strike from low to high and hit a target above their own eye, which is exactly what Mack does here.
Can he beat Reiff with speed, counters and bull rushes? Yep, and he did just that. But why not throw in this changeup when Reiff takes a deep pass set with terrible balance and bad footwork? It was the perfect strike from Mack, even if it didn’t affect the play in question. This is his signature move, and it can be used effectively as a way of setting up blockers for other moves, such as the stab (the finesse changeup to the long arm), the chop-and-rip or the swipe-and-rip.
But on this next play, a bit later in the third quarter, Mack also displays his finishing ability on a tackle-end stunt inside. Watch the initial arc of his rush, as Mack really sells the outside speed rush before dipping back underneath. RB Dalvin Cook might have had check-release duties on this play, but he doesn’t get even a fingernail on Mack. Reiff already has been haunted by Mack’s outside rush and his bull to this point.
And now this is where Mack rushes upfield — one step, two, three … and then flattens down quickly and just hunts. There are no false steps or wasted movement. Watch him turn on a dime and then just go right around RG Mike Remmers, who was engaged with DL Akiem Hicks. Mack bursts forward for the red-zone sack on QB Kirk Cousins before Remmers can peel back and stop it.
Want to see how Mack splits double teams? How about we do one better and show you a play where three blockers are committed to him? Mack not only wins that battle by getting past all three but also by opening up the strip-sack for Hicks. This is just silly. Hicks earns the sack, but Mack makes it happen.
One of the best plays from Mack all season, combining all of his rare gifts into one play, came against the Buccaneers. Granted, this was a game in which the Bears were leading 38-3 and QB Jameis Winston had just come off the bench (his first action after a suspension) for his seventh snap after replacing Ryan Fitzpatrick. But nonetheless, this is tremendous stuff.
It’s first-and-10 at the Chicago 48 as the Bucs have converted a few first downs (including one on fourth down) and are threatening to score. The run is still in play here because there are still 26-plus minutes left in the game and the Bears are in a four-deep pre-snap look with their safeties 14 and 18 yards off the ball, respectively.
Watch here as Mack reads run first and squeezes his gap as Bucs LG Ali Marpet pulls out to his side. That’s normally a run key, but in this case it’s window dressing to slow down the rush; Mack sees this and quickly adjusts after identifying the play-action fake. His change-of-direction skills are on full display here.
Mack unleashes a lethal left-hand club followed by a beautiful swim, and the standout guard goes flying by. Then it’s closing time: Mack closes the three-yard distance to the quarterback and gets his hand on Winston’s throwing arm. The result is a wounded duck of a pass that’s easily picked by LB Danny Trevathan. Good golly, Miss Molly, that’s a clinic right there.
Not pictured on this GIF: Mack seeing the pick, peeling back 20 yards downfield and hunting down Buccaneers to block on the return. His passion for playing just screams on the tape.
For good measure, here’s his other sack in that game — earlier against Fitzpatrick. Speed rush. Dip. Finish. Look at the balance Mack shows around the edge to not only get to the QB but also to locate the ball and knock it loose.
Of course, Mack is not a perfect player. I watched several snaps over six different games of his, and he seemed to take circuitous routes to the quarterback when teams lined a tight end (or two) on his side, which slowed him down or added steps to his path to the quarterback. It wasn’t always the case, and Mack often dispatched a few with ease. But there were a few of examples of this that popped up.
Another tactic some teams took against him, something the Rams could try this week, is the crack-back block from the outside. Unsuspecting defenders always are going to be vulnerable to this on some level, but here against the Giants, Mack falls victim to this with a nice play design. They send TE Scott Simonson (shoutout to the first and only Assumption College player in the league!) split out wide left and then motion him back toward the formation.
What’s interesting is that Mack turns his head and sees Simonson working toward him but isn’t ready for the incoming block, which pancakes Mack to the ground for a 9-yard gain on second-and-7. The Giants would score a momentum-changing touchdown on Odell Beckham’s trick-play TD pass the very next play.
The “toss crack” is a play you see with increasing regularity in the NFL, and it’s definitely in McVay’s playbook. They called it on the penultimate play of the win over Green Bay in which Todd Gurley angered his fantasy owners by going down short of the end zone (but yes, it was a smart play). Lost in that moment was that McVay clearly believes in the play against an aggressive front, as the Packers were in desperation mode late down two points.
McVay’s version here is a bit different with the tight end motioning from the other side of the formation, but the concept is the same. The Rams often call this play with multiple receivers bunched to one side, and the idea is to leave some of the interior D-linemen unblocked, pull a tackle into space and ask the tight ends/receivers to block a bigger edge player — one who might not have his head on a swivel as they watch the run action up front — in what can be a pretty productive run play in a key spot. Expect them to run this at least once against the Bears Sunday night, and they’ll do it from almost anywhere on the field.
"That's really kind of been the theme for a lot of these teams that have those really good rushers,” McVay said. “You want to try to find creative ways to get good matchups for them, or what they deem is a favorable matchup from a defensive standpoint, and how they can dictate some different things — whether it be protection-wise or getting him at the point of attack in some of the different things in the early down-and-distances.
“So, very similar to kind of what we had seen from some other teams that have some premier players coming off that edge. We've got to do a good job, but fortunately for us, whole lot of respect for them, but we do have a lot of confidence in both [LT] Andrew [Whitworth] and [RT] Rob [Havenstein] and their ability to compete as well."
One final Mack note: He has committed one penalty — a 5-yard offsides call back in Week 3 — all season. Mack was a bit jumpy in Oakland last season, with three offsides and two neutral-zone fouls, but that hasn’t been an issue at all with the Bears.
When you watch clip after clip of Donald, it feels like a highlight reel. On a snap-to-snap basis, I am not sure there has been a more destructive and disruptive player in the NFL in the past decade — and yes, I’ve seen plenty of J.J. Watt (and others).
Donald’s combination of athleticism, strength, burst, quickness, ferocity and finishing ability makes him a truly unique force. He’s undersized by DT standards at 6-foot-1 and 280-ish pounds, but he showed at the NFL combine nearly five years ago what a rare breed he was by zooming to a 4.68-second 40-yard dash (faster than Anquan Boldin), 35 reps on the bench press (more than most offensive linemen) and a 7.11-second three-cone drill (faster than his 185-pound teammate, DB Lamarcus Joyner).
“You look at him and you wonder how he can weigh as much as he weighs and be as quick as he is,” Nagy said of Donald. “He’s really extremely quick. He’s savvy in regards to the different types of moves that he has. He’s got power. He’s got the speed. The athleticism. He can do it all.”
On top of that, Donald is a technician. He’s the best hands fighter in the NFL. Quick, agile and precise, Donald first wins the leverage battle by firing off low and typically getting his 10-inch hands inside. Then he uses his vast array of pass-rush maneuvers to beat guards and centers with quickness and by getting tackles off a good, solid base. Even double teams — no one is better at beating them — are sometimes fruitless in stopping him.
But sometimes Donald can win with his initial move to where the battle is over before it starts. Watch here against the Packers back in Week 8. Coming out of a timeout, the Packers were leading 27-26 and faced a third-and-5 from their own 25-yard line. With four wide receivers, the Packers are using a six-man protection with RB Ty Montgomery asked to help pick up pressure and give QB Aaron Rodgers a chance to convert the first.
Donald is lined up in the “B” gap between LT David Bakhtiari and LG Lane Taylor, with Montgomery offset to the same side. In essence that’s three blockers who should have some ability to get a piece of Donald, even with the Rams blitzing five at the QB and putting a sixth defender (Marqui Christian) right behind Donald, to where the Packers don’t know if he’s rushing or not.
That doubt seems to make Montgomery hesitate a bit, and he somehow doesn’t see Donald beating Taylor off the snap on an inside rush. Donald achieves this, if you can see, with a jab step to his right (Taylor’s left) and then back the other way to get the guard on skates. Then Donald executes a perfect chop-rip move to beat Taylor thoroughly and sack Rodgers.
Let’s check it out in slo-mo so you can see the whole operation:
Let’s look at three plays from the same game — at the San Francisco 49ers in Week 7. The reason we’re putting all three plays together here is because it shows the breadth of his pass-rush arsenal. He can defeat an interior blocker with a long-arm rush (as he does in the first clip to C Weston Richburg); Donald can run the arc with leverage and speed around the outside of a young, quality tackle (RT Mike McGlinchey); or, just to switch things up, Donald will flash a good, old-fashioned bull rush (again vs. Richburg) and keep his eyes on the ball the whole time.
Sit back and enjoy this artistry:
If you’re an offensive lineman, what do you even do against him? You basically have to play with perfect technique, stay balanced, make damned sure your hands are inside of his (easier said than done) and in some cases still get help — either from another blocker or from a quarterback/play call that has the ball coming out fast. But there’s a good chance, with Donald and Suh, that double-teams on No. 99 every play just isn’t a realistic approach.
“I know they feel good with their one-on-one battles,” Nagy said of the Rams. “They feel that that’s their strength. That’s part of the reason why I think Coach Phillips does what he does schematically. They can make plays with one-on-ones.
“Our guys, they’ve got to be up for the challenge and understand that you’ve got to do everything possible when you get a chance and you are one on one, you’ve got to win. We’ll try to do everything we can schematically to help you out.”
It sounds a bit funny to say that the Seahawks did a good job on Donald back in Week 10 considering he had 2.5 sacks and five QB hits in that game against them. But Seattle was fairly effective in terms of making Donald work for that production and to take him out of his comfort zone in spots. Pro Football Reference graded it as Donald’s worst game this season, even if it’s the kind of performance most interior linemen dream about.
The Seahawks used a lot of heavy fronts. OT George Fant was used as a sixth offensive lineman 20 of the 68 offensive snaps, and they used either a tight end or fullback — or both — about two-thirds of the time. They aligned with tight splits up front and mixed the power run with play-action and misdirection plays.
It appeared that Seattle offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer’s plan was to either run right at Donald or to invite him to rush wider against the tight formations. They rarely asked their linemen to try to reach block him, which is nearly impossible anyway, and almost always gave backside help. It didn’t always work in this game, but you could understand the thinking behind it — and sometimes it was effective.
On this first-quarter snap in the red zone, it’s second-and-10 from the Rams’ 14-yard line. Donald initially lines up in a 4i alignment but slides inside to a 3-technique spot when Russell Wilson changes the play and RB Mike Davis changes to Donald’s side of the field. It’s possible Donald read this — with Wilson in the shotgun — as an audible to a pass with Wilson changing protections.
But it’s not. It’s an inside zone run with two tandem blocks, with the left tackle and center working up to the second level. Interestingly, that leaves LG J.R. Sweezy (a one-time defensive lineman himself) all alone to block Donald — and he does good work here. Sweezy sees the backside tackle has a man lined head up on him, so he knows he’s not getting help here. Sweezy uses good footwork to get out of his stance quickly and gain an edge.
Donald’s first mistake is getting too high. Watch as he rises out of his get-off, almost standing up. Because he’s such a low-center-of-gravity player with elite quickness and strength, he can sometimes still get away with this. But not here: Sweezy gains inside position on Donald, walls him off and gets his inside hand far enough into Donald’s chest to work him out of the play.
On another snap in this game, Donald has flipped sides — he’s now lined up as a 4-technique head up over RT Germain Ifedi on a second-and-6 from the Seattle 34-yard line. This had to be enough for any Seahawks fan to vomit in their mouths had they noticed this pre-snap. After all, Ifedi was the most penalized offensive lineman in the NFL in 2017 and generally has been considered a bust, albeit one who has been counted on to play a lot because of the team’s dearth of OL talent the past few seasons.
But this was no one-on-one battle. Credit Ifedi here for getting a good initial punch, working through Donald (half a man) up to the second level. In comes uncovered RG Jordan Simmons, who was making his first and — so far — only NFL start. Does Simmons get away with a hold at the end of the play? Perhaps yes, but the ball carrier, Rashaad Penny, was either even with Donald or past him when it occurs. Here Simmons does a pretty solid job of finishing what Ifedi started and pushing Donald (who had been stood up and briefly has been turned 90 degrees to the ball) while Penny squirts by for a 6-yard run and a first down.
I wanted to show this to you in slow-mo, but I also wanted you to see Donald’s post-play reaction, which only can be detected at normal speed:
You also can see Donald’s frustration there at the end, and one pro scout we talked to from a team who faced Donald this season said part of the game plan going in was to try to frustrate him in this way, as he sometimes lets his emotions run too hot on plays. (The scout also quickly joked that the plan didn’t work in their game, but, hey, best intentions and all of that …)
Donald has been called for four penalties this season — two roughing-the-passer calls, one unnecessary roughness flag and one illegal use of hands infraction. That’s fairly in line with his past penalties, except for a 2016 season in which he was unusually penalty-prone with three offsides flags (two declined), two roughing-the-passer calls and one disqualification after he lost his cool in the season-opening loss to the 49ers.
But the past two seasons have shown a more disciplined version of Donald, who clearly has honed his craft to an even greater degree under the tutelage of longtime DL coach Bill Johnson, who previously helped turn Cameron Jordan into a star in New Orleans.
Donald is almost never asked to drop — because why would you? He’s simply the most devastating interior rusher in the game today, able to line up in almost any technique and wreck blocking schemes with regularity. Entering Week 14, Donald has 16.5 sacks through 12 games, which already is tied for the 46th most in league history (since sacks became an official stat in 1982) for a season.
It’s also four more sacks than any other player has so far this season. With four games to go, Donald has a legitimate chance to break the record of 22.5 by Michael Strahan set in 2001.
So it’s easy to see that there are not a lot of holes in Donald’s game. But as we said, there are no even perfect players; everyone has a weakness. Perhaps this is one way to slow him down.