All-22 Film Study: What Makes Aaron Donald So Great, And So Tricky

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Los Angeles Rams fans usually see Aaron Donald at the end of a play, chasing down a hapless quarterback or dragging down a running back.

I wanted to see what happened for the entire play. What is a game like for Aaron Donald, where does he line up? What does he do? Does he get double-teamed a lot, or is that a myth? Does he get held a lot?

After breaking down the game film on Rams star wide receiver Cooper Kupp a few weeks ago, I decided to flip over to the other side of the ball and focus on Donald in the Rams last game against the Carolina Panthers courtesy of the All-22 film on NFL+.

The superstar from Pitt is having a mediocre year, by his standards, 25 tackles and four sacks through six games, but watching each one of his 36 plays (the official snap count list said 35, but I counted 36) it was revealing how active Donald is on every play, how the Panthers countered him, and how it still didn’t work.

Officially Donald had four tackles and no sacks, but he was a factor throughout.

The Rams won a sloppy game 24-10 over the Panthers. No one put Donald in the headline for his contributions, but the film shows he had as big a hand in the win as any other Ram.

Here’s a breakdown of Aaron Donald and his game against the Panthers:

Where Did He Line Up?

I thought this would be telling, because the standard thought in the NFL is put your best defensive lineman (Donald) against the opponent’s weakest offensive lineman.

But honestly, Donald lined up everywhere. In his 36 plays, he lined up against Panthers right guard Austin Corbett 13 times. He lined up over left guard Brady Christensen 10, right tackle Taylor Moton nine and left tackle Ikem Ekwonu four.

What was revealing, however, was that even if Donald lined up against the right tackle, it didn’t mean that’s who he would engage with. Many times Donald would be just in between the left tackle and guard and at the snap, he would shoot the gap in between the two players disrupting the timing of the assignments.

I only counted one time that Donald looped around on a stunt. Usually, he just attacked the gap in front of him.

Donald also missed about 10 plays against the Panthers at the end of their first drive and start of the second, not sure why. The Rams went with a three-man line of Jonah Williams, Marquise Copeland and A’Shawn Robinson when Donald was out.

It might be telling that the Panthers only scoring drive offensively (a field goal) came when Donald wasn’t on the field as much.

The Aaron Donald Superpower

Donald is blessed, I mean, really blessed with a sixth sense about when the ball is going to be snapped. Yes, he’s strong and powerful and all of that, but watching the 36 plays, what separates him from every other Ram is his ability to get off the ball so quick.

Like, by the time the Panthers offensive linemen would step back and look to engage, Donald was already by them. It happened multiple times. He would pop out of his stance and shift his feet so quickly that the Panthers just had no chance.

That quickness is just uncanny. After a while I realized that Donald is the only Rams defensive player like that. Robinson doesn’t get off the snap the same way.

Also though, the Panthers rolled and ran away from Donald a lot. Two times Donald was completely unblocked (had to be a missed assignment) and the Panthers got away with it, Panthers quarterback PJ Walker faked out Donald the first time, and threw a quick pass the second before Donald could do any damage.

Double Teams?

Nine times. Donald was doubled nine times by the Panthers. One of the times Donald actually jumped up and batted down the Walker pass inside the red zone.

So if you’re a Panther offensive lineman it has to be frustrating. Hey, you finally line him up, double him, push him off the ball and he still makes a play.

Oh yeah, he was also tripled-teamed once, on a deep passing play, the Panthers put two linemen on him and then former Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey chipped him. Donald is a superhero, but no he didn’t break through the triple team.

I only counted one time when Donald was held and it wasn’t called. More often than not Donald was by the Panther player before he could even be held.

The Good Plays

A couple of plays stood out in my study. Panthers offensive play 24, a run by McCaffrey. At the snap, Christensen rises up to meet Donald, but Donald shoots out his hands quick and then slices through the gap. McCaffrey cuts away from Donald, but he chases him down for a short gain. Christensen fell on his butt trying to get to Donald.

Panthers offensive play 20. The Panthers are trying to draw the Rams offside to get a first down. Donald is the first Rams player to stand up and be like, “not gonna work.” That shows great instincts.

Panthers offensive play 39. Donald is lined up on the right guard, just before the snap he moves a hair to his left making it look like he’s going at Moton (this is the only time he does this the whole game), but no, it’s a fake, it’s all about getting a better angle on Corbett at right guard. Donald also knows that Jalen Ramsey is going to be blitzing behind him. Moton can’t get to Ramsey. Corbett can’t block Donald. Ramsey comes through for a sack with Donald right behind.

The Bad Plays

The Panthers did have some success running right at Donald a few times. It was clear that Donald subscribes to the whole “play the run on the way to the quarterback” theory. Usually at the snap, Donald would just charge right up field.

Donald was also blocked out of nine plays by my count. I don’t know exactly how to define it, but it was a play where he had no impact. Corbett and Donald got into a few post-play fights, but I’d also say Corbett had the best success blocking Donald.

I was disappointed to see Donald not as active in chasing plays down the field. The Panthers did a lot of passes in the flat and once the ball got far away, Donald usually just jogged over.

The Final Word

Aaron Donald is still as good as any player in the NFL. After a while it was obvious the Panthers were determined to account for Donald on every play and get the ball out quickly and away from him.

Donald’s quickness at the snap – I know I said it, but I will say it again – was stunning to see. It’s that gift that makes him an NFL unicorn. Rams fans may see what happens at the end of the play, but what happens at the very start is what makes Donald unique.