LA Rams All-Pro Aaron Donald playing dangerous new position
By James Dudko
Take a poll of any 100 fans, and 99 of them will say LA Rams’ All-Pro defensive lineman Aaron Donald is the best defensive tackle in the NFL. The one who says otherwise probably lives in San Francisco.
Yet, as good as Donald is, there are many who associate his dominance with a particular role. He became a pass-rushing nightmare as a 3-technique defensive lineman, lining up in the B gap between a guard and offensive tackle.
Donald’s quickness and natural leverage helped him record most of his 102 career sacks from this position. He’s been listed as a defensive end since the Rams switched to a 3-4 defense in 2017, but he’s still aligned inside in the one-gap schemes of Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, defensive coordinator Brandon Staley, and current defensive coordinator Raheem Morris.
Although he’s traditionally played close to or at the edges of the Rams’ front seven, things are changing for Donald. The 31-year-old has been looking dangerous at a new position in recent weeks, a change that can transform the league’s 17th-ranked scoring defense.
Donald has been proving effective playing over center. The benefits of moving No. 99 over the ball showed up during Week 8’s otherwise dismal 31-14 defeat to the San Francisco 49ers.
Cocked-nose nose tackle
This subtle but significant change was noticed by the Pro Football Journal, where Aaron Donald moved to line up directly over the 49ers center:
The site compared Donald to the nose tackle who enjoyed an NFL-Hall-of-Fame-worthy career with the New York Jets, Joe Klecko:
Mentioning Joe Klecko is important, as is the PFJ’s reference to Donald acting as a “cocked nose.” This means Donald isn’t playing as a traditional 0-technique head-up on a center and is expected to occupy double teams along the interior.
Run stuffer too
Instead, the nine-year veteran is cocked or tilted, lining up in a slanted way. Notice in the play highlighted above how Donald initially drove into the A-gap between center Jake Brendel (64) and right guard Spencer Burford (74).
Donald could just as easily have slanted the other way across Brendel’s face and into the left guard. Playing as a tilted nose means Donald can line up over the ball and still avoid double teams and be free to attack single gaps.
Even when he is doubled, Donald can turn most of his body toward the blocker he wants to isolate. That’s what happened on this run stuff vs. Jeff Wilson:
Donald causing so much havoc in his new position will make every member of the Rams’ front seven better. Specifically, Rams inside linebacker Bobby Wagner will have more open lanes to attack downhill, finally forming the epic pairing with Donald many fans expected this season.
More than one benefit
Wagner won’t be the only beneficiary. Putting Donald in the middle will also mean more one-on-one matchups on the outside for edge-rushers Leonard Floyd and Terrell Lewis. That’s an obvious advantage for a unit with just 15 sacks to its credit.
Klecko isn’t the only inspiration for Donald’s new role. The more famous example is Hall of Famer Mean Joe Greene, who made the position a staple of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ famed Steel-Curtain defense in the 1970s.
"(Pittsburgh Steelers’ Joe) Greene can be credited with revolutionizing defensive line play with his use of a tilted alignment that allowed the him to use his unmatched quickness to slice through gaps. – according to ESPN’s Stephen Holder"
Using unmatched quickness sure sounds like Donald. Making Greene’s position his own will create yet another shared legacy between two players most would put on the Mount Rushmore of defensive tackles.
Of course, Donald has had a history of testing offensive fronts throughout his career, and one of the criteria for the Rams’ selection of defensive linemen is the versatility to migrate to the role that Donald is not playing. But there is more to this over-the-nose-tackle positioning right now. In the Rams’ quest to speed up the pass rush, placing Donald over center shaves valuable time required to get in the quarterback’s face.
And with the opposing offenses getting very good at chipping at Donald with a tight end, running back, and offensive tackle trio, the Rams resetting him over center places him into a new slot that creates a host of problems.