At the beginning of a game, Los Angeles Rams defensive Aaron Donald and opposing offensive linemen typically exchange barbs. As the game goes on, those offensive linemen tend to go quiet.
Instead of hurling expletives at Donald, they’re muttering cuss words at themselves for blowing assignment after assignment. Those offensive linemen must relate to the Greek myth of Sisyphus, who spent eternity trying to roll a boulder up a hill, only to have the boulder run him over. Every. Single. Time.
“After a while, yeah, his stat line up is a forced fumble and two sacks, the offensive line have definitely less to say,” Michael Brockers told The Big Lead in Atlanta for Super Bowl LIII this week. “Aaron is Aaron — you don’t know which one you’re going to get. It could be the monster. It could be the freak. Either way, it’s going to be bad for you.”
It’s also not uncommon for offensive linemen to enter the game with limited confidence. They’ve seen the film — they surely know how impossible he’s been to block this year. The defensive tackle finished with 20.5 sacks in 2018, which led the NFL and beat the second best player at his position by 10 sacks (Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox had 10.5 sacks).
“Offensive linemen try so hard not to be nervous or scared around him. It’s the funniest thing ever, bro,” Rams defensive end Dante Fowler said. “He’ll be like, ‘Yeah, I’m on you. I’m on you. I’m in your head.’ And then they’re like, ‘I’m not nervous. I’m not scared.’ But it’s like, why would you say that? What would you talk trash back to him and say you’re not nervous. So you’re like, ‘You are fucking nervous, bro.'”
Not only do Brockers, Fowlers, Ndakumong Suh and others benefit from the strong performance of Donald, which demands immense defensive attention and makes life easier for his teammates, but Donald also makes for good theater, like watching a teammate repeatedly dunk on the same opponent. They get an up-close look at that opponent after every snap.
There’s fear in the eyes of offensive linemen. There’s evidence of frustration — and eventually defeat — in body language and in speech.
The other thing Rams defensive linemen will hear in the trenches is the typical communication before a snap to make sure everyone knows their assignments. Every team does it in the NFL. But because Donald gets double and triple teamed, that pre-snap communication is essential if they have any hopes of blocking Donald.
“They’re trying to make sure he’s contained,” defensive tackle Ethan Westbrooks said. “And it never really works.”
No, it does not.
“There will be moments in games when he’s unstoppable and offensive linemen will be calling for help. And he’s like, ‘Man, don’t call for no help,'” Brockers said. “With a guy like that to understand that he can be unblockable and nobody can mess with him is crazy.”
Donald doesn’t just leave his opponents furious. He also does it to teammates, too. Scout-team center John Sullivan said that he felt he’d had a good rep if he’d merely slowed Donald on his first step.
“He’s probably the only person you don’t get used to,” Sullivan said. “It’s almost kind of comical. You kind of shrug it off and make a joke you can’t block Aaron Donald.”
One of Sullivan’s teammates overheard our conversation and joked: I touched Aaron Donald — that’s a good rep. While offensive lineman may feel they can barely get a hand on him, Donald does a bit more than put a hand on opposing offensive lineman. Often, he does a lot more.
During their first year in Los Angeles in 2017, a few Rams players began fighting during organized team activities in the spring. Donald was in a scrum between offensive and defensive linemen.
“You saw a hand reach in and you saw a hand reach out with a face mask ripped off someone’s helmet,” Rams backup quarterback Sean Mannion said. “I’ve never seen that before — I don’t know how that’s even possible.”
The moment made an impression on his teammates.
“It was like the comic book and The Hulk came alive,” Westbrooks said.
No one could recall what that offensive lineman said following Donald’s herculean display of strength. But Westbrook remembers the offensive lineman wearing “a disturbed facial look.”
“I know he didn’t have a face mask no more, so you saw his face clearly,” Westbrooks said.
It was surely a clearer look at what Donald always does to opposing offensive linemen: shock, awe, frustration and a whole lot of fear.