There is no denying the fact that Aaron Donald grew up in Pittsburgh rooting for, who else, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
He was one of the nation’s top defensive players at the University of Pittsburgh and then went to the St. Louis Rams with the 13th overall pick in the 2014 draft. After capturing NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and Pro Bowl honors as a rookie, Donald’s reputation as one of the league’s best pass rushers continues to grow.
At noon Sunday at the Edward Jones Dome, Donald will get his first opportunity to face the team he loved as a youngster when the Steelers visit the Rams.
“It’s going to be pretty cool,” Donald said. “I grew up watching those guys and I’ve been watching ‘Big Ben’ (Roethlisberger) since I was young and he was taking them to a Super Bowl. I still consider myself a Steelers fan until we play them.”
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On Sunday, Donald hopes to be adding the 6-foot-5, 240-pound Roethlisberger to his list of sack victims that stands at 2.5 after two games and 11.5 in 18 NFL games.
“I want to get a sack every week, but (if) you get to him you’ve got to get your big boy pants ready ,because he ain’t going to go down easy,” Donald said. “He is a pretty big guy. When I get a chance, I’m going to try to get him down.”
I grew up watching those guys and I’ve been watching ‘Big Ben’ (Roethlisberger) since I was young and he was taking them to a Super Bowl.
Rams lineman Aaron Donald
The Steelers (1-1) and coach Mike Tomlin are well acquainted with Donald from his days at Pitt and also working out in the region’s various facilities.
“He’s just a ridiculous worker,” Tomlin said of Donald, who has his own restaurant in Pittsburgh called ‘AD’s Pittsburgh Cafe.’ “I was in this past winter, it was a week after the Pro Bowl and I saw him in that parking lot every morning because he was coming over to get his work like he normally does at the University of Pittsburgh.
“I saw him just about every morning in February. When a lot of guys are on beaches and vacationing, this guy was getting out of his car at 6:30 in the morning to work out. That’s not out of character based on the things that I know about him.”
Donald and the Rams’ defense figures to be severely tested by the Steelers’ high octane offense led by Roethlisberger (47-of-65 for 720 yards and four TDs) and wide receivers Antonio Brown (18 catches, 328 yards, two TDs) and Darrius Heyward-Bey (eight catches, 135 yards).
“Ben can throw you open,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. “You can do a great job in covering. You can do a great job with your technique. You can be one-on-one perfect, but then he’ll put the ball on the back shoulder, back hip, front shoulder and he’ll throw you open.
“And those are the kind of guys that you win championships with — and they have, and he’s won them.”
Aaron Donald, besides being a special player, is a special man.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin
Add in the return of star running back Le’Veon Bell from a two-game suspension and the presence of the NFL’s second-leading rusher, DeAngelo Williams (204 yards, three TDs) and it’s easy to see why this might not be an easy day at the defensive office for the Rams (1-1).
There also is intrigue surrounding the potential debut of Rams rookie running back Todd Gurley. Coming off ACL surgery, the former Georgia star took a lot of reps with the first team offense all week, but was still listed as questionable on the Friday injury report.
He could provide a much-needed list to the Rams’ struggling running attack that ranks 26th in the NFL at 71.5 yards per game.
“We have him listed as questionable, which means, implies, that there’s a 50/50 chance he’ll play,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. “It’ll be a game-time decision. So really, really pleased with the progress this week.”
Is Fisher simply following standard coaching protocol of keeping opponents in the dark regarding personnel moves?
“Well, I think around the league everybody would prefer not to tip their hand, and that’s kind of where we are right now,” Fisher said. “But if he doesn’t go, he doesn’t go. And that’ll be a decision we’ll make Sunday.”
Tomlin knows the Rams defense will be eager to prove itself after struggling last week in the loss to the Redskins.
“It starts inside and up front,” Tomlin said. “There’s no secret they’ve got a really talented group. I know some of those guys and just have a great deal of respect for them. Aaron Donald, besides being a special player, is a special man. I’ve gotten to know him over the years being a neighbor over here at Pitt.
“Just to watch what he’s willing to do is as or more impressive than he’s capable of doing.”