After shredding offensive lines throughout the NFL last season, St. Louis Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald has even bigger plans for 2015.
That’s saying a lot for the reigning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and the Rams’ first rookie to make the Pro Bowl since running back Jerome Bettis in 1993.
All Donald did last season was supplement an already strong defense by leading all NFL rookies and setting a Rams rookie record with nine sacks and racking up a team-leading 17 tackles for loss among his 72 tackles.
There was also the matter of his 32 quarterback pressures and 12 quarterback hits.
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“You can never be satisfied until you’re done playing this game, but I honestly feel like I haven’t played my best football in this league yet,” Donald said Monday. “I’m still waiting to have that game where I have two sacks in one game. I didn’t have that yet so I’m working.”
Rams coach Jeff Fisher said Donald is a special talent who also has an incredible drive to succeed.
“He’s worked very, very hard the entire offseason,” Fisher said. “All of the things he accomplished last year, he started this offseason on a mission. He’s in great shape. He has a good feel. He knows every snap he has a chance to win and he’s motivated by that.
“That’s going to be good for us — and very hard to block this year.”
After watching Donald’s path of destruction lst season, Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams can only dream of what lies ahead.
“He is his own person,” Williams said of Donald, one of two first-round picks last season and a former star at Pitt who left college with a sack full of national defensive awards. “I really believe he just scratched the surface last year.
“His understanding of the pro game, his understanding of how we want things done, and some of the freedom’s that we allow him to do, to play around him ... he’s a rare person instinctive-wise. He’s a rare person intelligence-wise about that position. And he’s a rare person leverage-wise. He plays with great leverage all of the time.”
Rams defensive tackle Michael Brockers saw Donald’s rapid transition to the NFL and was not surprised in the least.
“You saw it at practice first,” Brockers said. “He comes in and I didn’t see an offensive lineman (from the Rams), no offense to those guys, that could really touch him at all. Now seeing him actually do it in a game we were like ‘OK, it wasn’t just a fluke. He’s actually good.’
“And to see him do it continually throughout the season, man that was awesome. I’m just proud of him. You see his work pay off in the long run and you’re just amazed at what he can do.”’
Donald checked in at 6-foot-1 and 285 pounds with lower body fat following another offseason of lifting and conditioning with his longtime trainer, DeWayne Brown of Two Tenths Speed and Agility in his hometown of Pittsburgh.
Among his areas of concentration were strength and flexibility along with explosive moves and conditioning.
“During the offseason I worked my butt off to get better,” Donald said. “I broke down film on myself to see the things I did right and wrong. I learned from it and I’m trying to build off it. I got bigger, got stronger, got faster so I prepared myself for this season.
“I came back a lot stronger, too. You come back comfortable when you come back in shape I just feel good.”
Making things worse for Rams’ opponents is the amount of talent surrounding Donald on the defensive line. There’s two-time Pro Bowl defensive end Robert Quinn, a healthy and talented defensive end returning in Chris Long, plus massive defensive tackle and former first-round pick Brockers.
Donald figures to get a lot more attention from opposing teams looking to slow his path to their backfield - remember his big sack of Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning? - but he welcomes the extra attention.
“We’ve got three other guys that come in there and can make plays, too,” Donald said, including defensive ends William Hayes and Eugene Sims and free agent defensive tackle Nick Fairley. “If they double-team me, that just leaves other guys open to make plays. I feel like you can’t double-team just one guy on this defensive line. We’ve got so many play-makers ... if they do that it just gives an opportunity for somebody else to make a play.”
Donald wasn’t a stationary target either, lining up at various spots and switching from side to side to take advantage of the extra blocking coverage on Quinn.
“A couple times I was on the same side with him,” Quinn said. “I moved around a lot, but you know most of the attention goes to Robert Quinn, so I try to not be on his side as much. He’s the man, so I’ve just got to keep working.”
Donald was happy with his rookie season, but isn’t spending much time dwelling on those considerable accomplishments.
“You always set yourself with high goals, but my main goal is just to do my job tpo help this team win the division and make a playoff run,” he said. “I’ve got goals for myself as well, but my main goal is to help my team wins games.”
Does he see himself as a defensive force in the NFL?
“I wouldn’t say that,” Donald replied quickly. “I feel like guys might recognize who I am a little bit more, but I haven’t reached that level yet. That’s what I’m working for.”