Los Angeles Rams Gameplan: Aaron Donald To Cement Himself Among Rams Great Pass Rushers

by Blaine Grisak
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When it comes to Los Angeles Rams great pass rushers, Deacon Jones always comes to mind. However, Aaron Donald is climbing up the list. The Deacon dominated offensive lines for the Rams in the 1960s. Sacks weren’t an official stat in Jones’ day, but it’s said that he would have accumulated 173.5 sacks in his career.

In the 1970s, Jack Youngblood tormented offenses on the gridiron. However, once again, most of Youngblood’s production came when sacks were not an official stat. Still, it’s said that Youngblood had 151.5 sacks in his career.

When sacks finally became an official stat in 1982, Kevin Greene made the most of it. In eight years with the Los Angeles Rams, Green quickly became the franchise’s best official pass rusher. Greene had 72.5 sacks in his career. That team record would hold for 14 years.

In Week 14 of the 2006 season, that record would be broken. In a game against the Oakland Raiders, Leonard Little was in the process of putting together his fourth 10-sack season. Leonard Little sacked Andrew Walter in the fourth quarter of a 20-0 win, hitting career sack number 73.

Little finished his career with the Rams with 87.5 sacks. Despite players like Chris Long and Robert Quinn coming through the franchise, Little has held that record since 2006. That is until likely on Sunday.

With the 13th pick of the 2014 NFL Draft, the St. Louis Rams had Aaron Donald fall into their lap.

The Houston Texans selected defensive end, Jadeveon Clowney with the first overall pick. Off the board next? The Rams passed on Aaron Donald and took Greg Robinson.

Jacksonville Jaguars – Blake Bortles.

Buffalo Bills – Sammy Watkins.

With the fifth overall pick, the Raiders selected Khalil Mack followed by Jake Matthews to the Falcons and Mike Evans to the Buccaneers.

At eight, the Cleveland Browns took Justin Gilbert who had one career interception.

Minnesota Vikings – Anthony Barr

Detroit Lions – Eric Ebron

Tennessee Titans – Taylor Lewan

With the 12th overall pick of the 2014 NFL Draft, the New York Giants select Odell Beckham Jr. The St. Louis Rams are on the clock.

After the RGIII trade, 2014 would be the final year that the Rams had two first round picks. Greg Robinson filled a need at number two overall. The 13th overall pick then became a value pick. Without the extra first round pick, the Rams likely take Zach Martin to fill an offensive line need.

However, being able to draft for value, the Rams arguably made the best draft pick in franchise history. The undersized, “too small” kid from Pittsburgh had fallen outside of the top-10 and into the Rams’ lap at 13.

“Marginal height and frame is nearly maxed out. Draft Projection: Round 4-5.” – NFL.com’s Nolan Nawrocki.

“Marginal size with very little growth potential. Can be overwhelmed by bigger, longer-limbed blockers.” –Bleacher Report’s Ryan Lownes.

“Lacks scheme flexibility.” – Walter Football.

With the 13th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, the St. Louis Rams select Aaron Donald, University of Pittsburgh.

The Pittsburgh native joined a defensive line that included fellow first round picks Chris Long, Robert Quinn, and Michael Brockers. The four players brought comparisons to the Fearsome Foursome and earned the nickname “Sack City” and “Mob Squad”.

With nine sacks in 2014, Aaron Donald became the second AP Defensive Rookie of the Year in franchise history. Donald remained one of the best defensive players on the Rams, but in 2017, he took that next step. With 11 sacks and five forced fumbles, Donald won his first Defensive Player of the Year award.

In 2018, Donald got close to breaking the NFL’s all-time sack record. With 20.5 sacks, Donald recorded the most sacks in a season for a Rams player and earned his second-straight Defensive Player of the Year Award.

2019 saw a third-straight 10-sack season for Donald, but in 2020 he put up a fourth straight and beat out TJ Watt for his third Defensive Player of the Year trophy. Only two other players in NFL history have won Defensive Player of the Year three times – Lawrence Taylor and JJ Watt.

Donald is without a doubt one of the best defensive players, and overall players, in not only Rams history, but NFL history. The Athletic released its list of the 100 best players in NFL history over the summer. Donald came in at 24, despite him not playing a snap over the age of 30. At number 19 came Deacon Jones.

The sky is the limit for Donald.

On Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals, Donald once again has the opportunity to rewrite the record books. With half a sack on Sunday, he will become the team’s official all-time sack leader. The greats like Youngblood and Jones will never be forgotten. However, at the top of the official list will be Aaron Donald.

Five Los Angeles Rams Players to Watch

1. DL Aaron Donald

I talked about it throughout the beginning of this piece. However, Aaron Donald will be one to watch against the Arizona Cardinals. The Los Angeles Rams need to knock Kyler Murray off of his game and Donald is the biggest disruptor in the middle of the Rams defensive line. If he gets just 0.5 sacks, he becomes the franchise’s all-time sack leader.

2. EDGE Terrell Lewis/Obo Okoronkwo

Justin Hollins had been playing very good, disciplined football. Hollins suffered a pectoral injury against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and will miss 8-10 weeks. This will be a big test for Lewis and Okoronkwo opposite of Floyd. They need to be able to pose as a threat, but they also need to play disciplined and keep Kyler Murray contained.

3. RB Darrell Henderson

After missing last week’s game against the Buccaneers, Sean McVay expects Henderson to play on Sunday. That’s big news for the Rams. Sony Michel ran well, however, Henderson will add more versatility to the Rams run game. Over the last two weeks, the Cardinals have allowed 219 yards to running backs. Vance Joseph defenses always struggle against the wide zone run scheme – of which the Rams run.

4. WR Cooper Kupp

Cooper Kupp has been playing at an elite level this season. He leads the NFL in yards, receptions, and touchdowns. If Kupp gets 170 receiving yards this Sunday he will break Henry Ellard’s record for most receiving yards through four games in NFL history. He’s off to a historical start and it likely won’t slow down anytime soon. 

5. LT Andrew Whitworth/C Brian Allen

In Week 1 against the Tennessee Titans, Chandler Jones and JJ Watt destroyed the game for the Titans and took over. Jones had five sacks in that game, but has had zero since. Whitworth will need to lock him down. Brian Allen has stepped up to the challenge for every game this season. He’ll have his hands full once again with another test in JJ Watt. Allen will need to be at his best to keep Stafford clean.

Five Keys to Victory for the Los Angeles Rams

1. Run the Football

In two of the first three weeks this season, I’ve said that the Los Angeles Rams shouldn’t run the ball for the sake of running the ball. However, in Week 4 against the Cardinals, the Rams need to shoot for 25-30 carries. Over the last two weeks, the Cardinals have allowed 219 yards to running backs. The Rams are going to be able to run the ball against the Cardinals. Sean McVay needs to put his shiny new toy away for a week at quarterback and let Henderson and Michel take over.

2. Don’t Allow the Big Play

Like last week, the Rams can’t allow the big play on defense. The Arizona Cardinals rank third in the NFL in passing plays over 20 yards. Their 9.9 yards per attempt through the air ranks third in the NFL. Christian Kirk has five receptions of 20 or more yards. The Rams need to force Kyler Murray to get impatient. When he does, bad things happen.

3. Tackle in the Secondary

Kliff Kingsbury does a great job of designing plays that allow for big yards after the catch. It’s something that he and McVay have in common. Cardinals rookie wide receiver Rondale Moore ranks fourth in yards after the catch this season and Chase Edmonds is also in the top-15. The Rams need to tackle in the secondary to avoid the underneath pass going for big yards.

4. Create Turnovers

This one should be obvious, but the Rams need to create turnovers. The Cardinals offense is explosive and can score in an instant. You need to be able to steal possessions from them. The Minnesota Vikings did this in Week 2, intercepting Murray twice. The Jaguars also intercepted Murray once as he threw into triple coverage trying for the big play. Turnovers always play a big role, but they are especially important against a team like the Cardinals.

5. Contain Kyler Murray

This is a fourth key that comes down to the defense. However, the defense is going to play a big role in this game. We know what we’re going to get from Stafford at this point. Kyler Murray is going to scramble and make plays with his legs. The Rams need to be able to contain him and not allow him to get outside. If the Rams can keep Murray in the pocket, they’ll be in good shape.

Five Matchups To Watch

1. Aaron Donald vs. the Cardinals Offensive Line

The Cardinals offensive line has been compromised over the last few weeks. Arizona has been shuffling their offensive line throughout the first few weeks of the season, but just haven’t faced a defense who can exploit it. The Cardinals face the reality of playing without Kevlin Beachum, Justin Pugh, and Justin Murray. If one does play, they won’t be at 100%.

2. Kyler Murray vs. Rams EDGE rushers

The Los Angeles Rams edge rushers need to play disciplined on Sunday. They can’t break contain and allow Murray to get outside and make plays. That’s when teams get in trouble. Murray can run for a big play, or make a play with his arm against a stressed secondary. Leonard Floyd has played well this season, but Okoronkwo and Lewis will be tested.

3. Chandler Jones vs. Andrew Whitworth

Chandler Jones destroyed Taylor Lewan in Week 1 and it led to a Cardinals blowout over the Titans on the road. That can’t happen this week if the Rams are going to win. Jones has been shutout in the last two weeks, but he’s still a very dangerous player. Whitworth has given up on sack and six pressures this season. The Rams need the most out of their veteran left tackle this week.

4. Christian Kirk vs. Jalen Ramsey

All eyes will be on Jalen Ramsey vs. DeAndre Hopkins. However, it’s unlikely that Ramsey will shadow or play a lot against Hopkins. Ramsey has been playing a lot of his snaps from what the Rams call “star” which is in the slot. Christian Kirk has the second-highest percentage of snaps from the slot this season. He also leads the Cardinals in receiving. Ramsey will need to be on his “A” game.

5. Sean McVay vs. Kliff Kingsbury

These are two of the best offensive minds in football and they are two close friends. Kingsbury was close to joining the Rams staff in 2018. Kingsbury has yet to prove himself as a top head coach at the NFL level. A win against someone he considers a mentor and friend would go a long way in doing that. However, will that cause him to overthink little things?

Five Bold Predictions for the Los Angeles Rams

1. Aaron Donald Gets Three Sacks

Aaron Donald has been ready to feast all season. He got very close against Carson Wentz, but he just escaped a few times. He sacked Brady once last week, but should have had one or two more. Against a deconstructed Cardinals offensive line, Donald should be able to get his. I expect Donald to break the Rams sack record and have his first multi-sack game of the season.

2. Sony Michel Rushes for 100 yards

The Los Angeles Rams haven’t rushed for 100 yards this season despite winning three times. Darrell Henderson will be back, but the Rams will likely manage him to not reaggravate his rib injury. Michel ran well against the Buccaneers despite averaging only 3.4 yards per carry. This week against the Cardinals, I expect the Rams to get the run game going and rely on Sony Michel the hot hand.

3. Robert Woods Eclipses 80 Yards

Robert Woods is off to a bit of a slow start this season. He had 64 yards against the Colts, but that game also came with a few drops. He has 27 and 33 yards in the other two. In four of his last six games against the Cardinals, Woods has eclipsed 80 yards. Teams will be focusing on Kupp which should open things up for Woods. Fans have been waiting for it, but this could be the big Woods game they’ve been waiting for.

4. The Los Angeles Rams Score 34 Points For a Third Time

The last time the Los Angeles Rams scored 34 points three times within the first four weeks of the season was 2018. The Rams did it three straight weeks that season. This season, the Rams missed the mark in Week 2 against the Colts, but have scored 34 against Chicago and Tampa Bay. The Cardinals gave up 33 to the Vikings and the Jaguars moved the ball well last week. The Rams offense is going to be able to score points.

5. Jalen Ramsey Intercepts Murray

Sometimes a great player will show up for a great occasion. The Cardinals are that great occasion. However, this week Jalen Ramsey talked with an 11-year old battling cancer and promised him the ball of his next interception. Don’t be surprised if that interception comes on Sunday against the Cardinals.

Five Storylines to Follow

1. Aaron Donald All-Time Rams Sack Leader

It’s unlikely that this will get brought up as much as a rushing leader or receiving leader or passing leader. However, as we discussed, Donald has the chance to become the Los Angeles Rams all-time official sack leader on Sunday against the Cardinals. For that to happen at So-Fi against a division opponent would be special.

2. NFC West Top Spot on the Line

The Los Angeles Rams and Arizona Cardinals come into this game at 3-0. After the day is done, only one team will remain undefeated and atop the NFC West. Following this game, the Rams have the Seahawks, Giants, Lions, and Texans. Meanwhile the Cardinals have the 49ers, Browns, Texans, and Packers. If the Rams win, they can distance themselves as front-runners in the division.

3. Kliff Klingbury vs. Sean McVay

As mentioned in our matchups, these are two of the NFL’s brightest young coaches and offensive minds. All eyes will be on them to see whose offense can score the most points on Sunday. This isn’t necessarily a great coaching matchup like Belichick vs. Harbaugh. However, it’s a fun coaching matchup that will get a lot of discussion.

4. Los Angeles Rams 8-0 Against Cardinals With McVay

The Los Angeles Rams have never lost to the Arizona Cardinals under Sean McVay. The last Rams loss to the Cardinals came late in the 2016 season with John “Bones” Fassell as the interim head coach. That game ended in a 44-6 loss. McVay won 33-0 in his first game against the Cardinals and won with John Wolford under center last season to clinch a playoff spot. McVay has dominated the Cardinals and only one game has been decided by one score.

5. Jalen Ramsey vs. DeAndre Hopkins

This storyline is going to get talked about a lot because it’s one of the best cornerbacks going up against one of the best wide receivers in the NFL. However, it’s uncertain just how much we’ll see Ramsey up against Hopkins just because of where Ramsey plays. Nonetheless, this will be a storyline to follow.

Downtown Rams Mailbag

Question 1

I touched on this earlier, but the Rams are going to be able to exploit the Cardinals in the run game. Over the last two weeks, the Cardinals have allowed  219 yards to running backs. Cam Akers only averaged 1.6 yards per carry in the Week 17 finale last season and John Wolford was the team’s leading rusher. However, in the first meeting, the Rams rushed for over 120 yards, including 49 from Henderson. I think that the Rams do get 100 yards this week and show that little brother still has a ways to go.

Question 2

This is a good question from Will. In four games against the Rams, Kyler Murray has just a 75.8 passer rating and completes just 58.7% of his passes. To put that in perspective, Murray has a 92.8 career passer rating and 66.7% completion percentage. He also has just five touchdowns to four interceptions against the Rams.

Murray is a quarterback who is always looking for the big play. The Rams take that way and make him uncomfortable as shown by the 11 sacks against Murray. Murray is playing very well this season, so I expect him to play better than his average stats against the Rams. However, the defense will continue to make Murray work for every yard and that will cause problems at one point or another.

Game Prediction

I am 3-0 with my Rams picks this season and hope to continue that going forward. This is a big matchup between two of the best teams in not just the NFC West, but the NFL. A win here could give the Cardinals confidence moving forward or propel the Rams to a comfortable spot atop the division with an easy schedule ahead.

Have the Cardinals finally taken that next step and joined the NFL’s premier teams? That’s the question they will look to answer. However, I think they’ll come up short.

This could be a close first half, but as the game gets tighter, I expect Murray to fall into mistakes and the Cardinals to crumble when it matters. The Rams are at home and simply have more experience. With the issues on the offensive line, at some point Aaron Donald is going to disrupt the game.

Prediction: Rams 30, Cardinals 20

 

 

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