Column: Rams great Aaron Donald close to achieving Super Bowl absolution
Aaron Donald sounded more like a Japanese baseball player than a Rams defensive tackle. His postgame news conference at Super Bowl LIII was a master class in self-flagellation.
Downplaying the part he played in slowing down the New England Patriots in the lowest-scoring Super Bowl in history, Donald tackle keyed in on what he didn’t do in the 13-3 defeat.
He mentioned how only one blocker was assigned to him on Tom Brady’s 29-yard pass to Rob Gronkowski that set up Sony Michel’s two-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
“I didn’t win my one-on-one clean,” Donald said. “He was sitting back there, had time to make a good pass and he made a good play.”
He blamed himself for a clock-burning 31-yard run by Michel in the final minutes.
49ers at Rams for NFC championship
“They hit my gap, so I feel I let my team down,” Donald said.
Donald was double- or triple-teamed on more than half of the Patriots’ offensive plays but refused to accept that as a reason for a statistically underwhelming performance in which he failed to register a sack or a tackle for a loss.
“I’ve been seeing it all year, we’ve been seeing it all playoffs,” Donald said. “We knew what to expect.”
But seated there in front of a dais in the bowels of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Donald was already planning for the future.
“I know we’ll be back,” he said.
Donald’s vision will be realized with a victory over the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC championship game on Sunday. Another win at SoFi Stadium two weeks later and the greatest defensive player of his generation will be granted the absolution for which he has waited three years.
“I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot in a short amount of time in this league,” Donald said this week. “The only thing I’m lacking now is being a world champion.”
There is more urgency now that Donald is 30. His legacy has become a concern of others in the Rams organization, with linebacker Von Miller saying that helping the three-time NFL defensive player of the year “complete the whole checklist” is one of his primary motivations to win a Super Bowl with the Rams.
“Selfishly, that’s what I want,” Miller said. “I want to be the guy that says, ‘I helped AD get a Super Bowl.’”
The sentiment is widespread.
“This building wants to win for Aaron Donald,” defensive coordinator Raheem Morris said.
Morris contended Donald’s well-wishers extended beyond his teammates and coaches, and included everyone from staffers in the public relations department to the analysts in the football operations offices.
“I think it’s just the person,” Morris said. “We love him. Flat (out) we love him.”
Morris sensed Donald’s desperation for a championship even before joining coach Sean McVay’s staff. He recalled watching the Rams lose to the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round of the playoffs last year.
Rams linebacker Von Miller read Kobe Bryant’s book, watched his documentaries and gained inspiration to become an even greater football player.
“I remember watching Aaron Donald’s face because they kept showing him on television,” Morris said. “I just looked into his eyes, and I felt that hurt and I felt that pain.”
In his first conversation with Donald after he was appointed defensive coordinator, Morris made the player a promise: “I’m going to do everything in my power possible to help you win a championship.”
A midseason trade acquisition from the Denver Broncos, Miller said it didn’t take long for him to pick up on the degree to which Donald was determined to return to the Super Bowl.
“You could sense the hunger right when I got here,” Miller said. “This is Week 8, Week 9 and we were already trying to work and be the best we possibly can for the postseason. You can just feel it. His energy. Just his aura. He puts so much work in and he deserves it.”
He’s a seven-time first-team All-Pro and eight-time Pro Bowl player for a reason. His 98 career sacks, including 12.5 this season, weren’t accidents.
With the AFC and NFC championship games set for Sunday, let’s take a look at the four potential Super Bowl LVI matchups that could be heading to SoFi Stadium.
“It’s 24-7 for AD,” Miller said. “I was a fan of AD even before I got here. He’s a great player. You watch him on film, you talk to him in the offseason, but to actually see him go through the process every single day in walk-throughs, rehab, everything that he does, man, he’s all-world. Whenever you come across guys like that, you root for them, man. You want it for them. You want to put your neck on the line for them.”
Especially when Donald continues making efforts to evolve.
Morris has noticed a change in Donald this week.
“His willingness to lead seems to be higher,” Morris said. “Aaron Donald doesn’t talk much to a whole group. He talks more to his unit, but this week, he’s talked to the defense. He’s more willing to talk to different people.”
Miller, an 11-year veteran and former Super Bowl MVP, played a role in Donald’s evolution.
“I always considered myself a leader, but I’m more of a lead-by-example guy,” Donald said. “I think one thing Von has challenged me a lot more with … is being more vocal, talking to the guys, letting them hear my voice.”
And when Donald speaks, others listen.
The pressure is on coach Sean McVay, the “Wonder Boy” who hasn’t lifted many eyebrows since his Super Bowl loss to Bill Belichick and the Patriots.
“Usually when other people talk, I don’t care who it is, somebody has to say, ‘Sh-sh-sh-sh,’” Morris said. “Not when Aaron’s talking.”
Morris recalled laughing as he watched Donald address the team’s defense in a huddle before a walk through earlier this week.
“Usually, you have to call somebody, somebody might be doing something different, come in straggling from special teams or something,” Morris said. “And you watched (cornerback) Jalen (Ramsey) come over with everything wrapped up and he started to sprint to the huddle to make sure he was in it. That’s the kind of respect he demands.”
Said Ramsey: “Obviously, everybody on the whole team, especially the defense, thinks so highly of him. It does mean a little bit extra when AD does things like that.”
Ramsey called Donald the best defensive player in the league. Morris said he might be the best ever. They feel that with a Super Bowl victory, Donald can finally have a resume worthy of him, both as a player and man.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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