Aaron Donald stood in the training room Sunday night, his abdomen swaddled in cellophane that was holding two ice bags to his side. A massive man with an even bigger smile, he was among the last of the Rams to leave the locker room for the bus.
Whatever discomfort the NFL’s two-time defensive player of the year was feeling, it was nothing compared to the way he pained the Cleveland Browns. He was a relentless wrecking ball on “Sunday Night Football,” a defensive tackle forever in the face of quarterback Baker Mayfield.
It wasn’t the kind of stuff that shows up on the stat sheet — numbers don’t always capture the havoc Donald wreaks — but he was a huge factor in the 20-13 victory by the Rams.
“A.D.’s the best defensive player in the league,” fellow defensive lineman Dante Fowler said. “It’s like asking what separates LeBron [James] from the other players in the NBA. He’s just better than everybody else. A man amongst boys.”
The Browns couldn’t contain Donald, and the raw numbers couldn’t define him.
“The sacks haven’t been falling his way, but as far as him getting in that backfield and being the dominant player he is, you can see it on film, he’s in the backfield all the time,” Rams defensive end Michael Brockers said.
“You can’t get away from him.”
Mayfield conceded as much, saying of Donald and Clay Matthews: “It starts with them up front. A very talented duo. It allows some of the other guys to get one-on-ones … they are a group that you have to know where they are at all times.”
Donald finished with four tackles, two for loss, and his first sack of the season. Not bad, but not stunning. Yet he was the most impactful player on the field, and remains a big reason the Rams are 15-3 on the road under Sean McVay, with those three losses coming to teams that ultimately won their respective divisions (Minnesota in 2017, New Orleans and Chicago last season).
“Speed, strength, quickness, but his football IQ, that’s the one thing we don’t talk about,” said Rams radio analyst D’Marco Farr, a former Pro Bowl defensive tackle for the franchise. “We always talk about the physical. But recognizing what they’re trying to do to him has always been his strength, and then moving him in different spots.
“The smart guy studies himself and the offense to see how they’re going to try to take you away. And then when you recognize it in a blink, when they miss you like when they should be sliding to you and they don’t, he wins. When they do slide, he’s got a plan for it. So whatever you send, he’s got the answer.”
Donald was the answer man everywhere but in the locker room after the game, where he was typically soft-spoken and self-critical.
“I missed a lot of plays, so I ain’t satisfied with that,” he said. “I just gotta get better, keep working to get myself back in my groove.”
He wasn’t particularly happy with his play after the opener against Carolina, played better in Week 2 against New Orleans, and said he started to hit his familiar stride Sunday night.
“I’ve been improving each week, that’s what I like, just getting better and better,” he said. “But I felt like I left a lot of plays out there that you don’t know and probably could have changed the game. Just gotta get better.”
By all accounts, he didn’t make many mistakes, although he did make a glaring one. He was flagged for roughing the passer on Cleveland’s last-gasp drive, a penalty that moved the Browns from the nine-yard line to the four, where they had four point-blank shots at the end zone.
“Just tried to make a play and I guess I got a little high [on the hit on Mayfield],” he said. “That’s my mistake.”
Before leaving the locker room, Donald smiled and stopped to correct a misunderstanding of those reporters who cover him.
“You guys keep saying my back is hurt,” he said. “It’s not my back, it’s just my sides. When you say back, it makes me feel old.”
Rest assured, he doesn’t look it.