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Aaron Donald sheepishly won’t tackle question on nuances of new Rams defense

The Rams' Aaron Donald (99) stretches before a team scrimmage on SoFi Stadium.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

He’s a two-time NFL defensive player of the year and a six-time Pro Bowl selection, a tackle who has terrorized offenses since he broke into the league six years ago.

Aaron Donald does not miss many opportunities to make plays.

But Donald wants to learn from rare miscues. So he welcomed offseason feedback from defensive line coach Eric Henderson.

“He pretty much told me all the bad plays, and showed me different bad plays that I had, the things I needed to work on,” Donald told reporters during a video conference Thursday. “That’s what you want, to be able to take coaching, so I can take my game to another level and keep getting myself better.”

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In 2014, the Rams chose Donald with the 13th pick in the draft. He went on to become the league’s defensive rookie of the year, and has continued to build a career that appears destined to conclude with enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Donald said he would use as motivation a recent ESPN metric that rated him as average against the run, which McVay dismissed.

“He’s just sharpening his tool box in every little thing, every single year,” McVay said.

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Donald was on hand for the groundbreaking for SoFi Stadium in 2016. On Sunday, he will play in the first game at the $5-billion venue when the Rams play the Dallas Cowboys on “Sunday Night Football.”

“Make no mistake about it,” Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said. “When you put together a game plan, you’re always talking about their feature players and you know Aaron is at the top of that list.”

Two years ago, Donald won his second consecutive defensive player of the year award. He amassed 20½ sacks — the most by an interior defensive lineman — and helped lead the Rams to the Super Bowl.

Last season, while facing double- and triple-teams, he produced 12½ sacks for a team that finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs.

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Is Donald anticipating similar strategies to contain him?

“Not sure,” he said. “I’m hoping not, but I got to go into the game thinking that I will. So, just go out there and play my game and do what I can do, and at the same time trust the guys around me are going to make their plays.”

Despite parting ways with Todd Gurley and Brandin Cooks in cost-cutting moves, the Rams are still expecting plenty of return on offense this season.

During his first three NFL seasons, Donald played in 4-3 schemes designed by former Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Wade Phillips installed a 3-4 when he joined McVay’s first Rams’ staff in 2017.

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McVay did not retain Phillips after last season. He hired 37-year-old Brandon Staley, the outside linebackers coach for the Chicago Bears and Denver Broncos the last three seasons. Staley has indicated that the Rams would run a hybrid 3-4.

“I know what I need to do, I know when I can take my chances,” Donald said of the defense. “Overall, I feel comfortable and I’m ready.”

Asked how the Rams defense might be different this season, Donald declined to offer specifics.

“Just say it’s going to be the same!” he said, chuckling.

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The Rams defense went through a major overhaul after the team finished 9-7 last season, with Brandon Staley, 37, replacing Wade Phillips, 73, as defensive coordinator.

Donald, who received a six-year, $135-million extension in 2018, and cornerback Jalen Ramsey are defensive cornerstones. On Wednesday, Ramsey agreed to terms on a five-year, $105-million contract.

“That’s what you want, that’s what you expect from an organization,” Donald said. “You want to make sure you’re top guys and your top playmakers is here for the long ride.”

Etc.

Running back Darrell Henderson (hamstring) was listed on the injury report as a full participant. Offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth returned after a scheduled rest day Wednesday. Cowboys receiver Amari Cooper (hamstring) and cornerback Chidobe Awuzie (knee) were full participants. Linebacker Luke Gifford (hamstring) was limited and cornerback Jourdan Lewis (ankle) did not participate.


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