Second of a five-part series looking at team strategy for Super Bowl LIII: Is there any way to block Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald?
He was asked to identify, as precisely as possible, what stands out most about the NFL’s best defensive player. After his typical three to five seconds of awkward and disconcerting silence, Bill Belichick narrowed his answer to this: “Everything.”
The New England Patriots head coach then called Rams tackle Aaron Donald “pretty much unblockable,” a description he has used in the past, but never before with more relevance. How New England handles the Rams’ one-man game-wrecker figures to greatly impact the outcome of Sunday’s Super Bowl.
“You see offenses trying to send help his way and he’s still making plays,” Patriots left guard Joe Thuney said. “He’s such a dynamic player. He’s getting serious consideration for MVP, right? That’s pretty much unheard of for his position.”
Thuney and fellow guard Shaq Mason should encounter Donald frequently, along with center David Andrews, who could be vital to New England’s effort because of the increased mobility he has displayed this season.
Whatever the Patriots do, they know they’ll be doing it against someone who almost certainly will be named he defensive player of the year this weekend.
“He’s just got a great motor, and he’s a great finisher,” New England offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia said of Donald. “He’s not the tallest guy in the world or the thickest guy in the world, but no one slaps him around.”
Thuney’s career has been marked mostly by success, the 2016 third-round pick about to become the first player to start in the Super Bowl in each of his first three seasons. In Donald, however, he and his linemates will be battling a force the NFL Network called the greatest defensive obstacle a Belichick-coached New England team has faced in a Super Bowl.
“You make a mistake against a guy like that and there’s no recovery,” Andrews said. “You really have to be on your game. You have to be close to perfect.”
Success against the Patriots often comes when 41-year-old quarterback Tom Brady is forced to move from his preferred spot. Donald, who led the league with 20½ sacks, is the best in the NFL at making quarterbacks uncomfortable.
Belichick is famous for surprising opponents with things not seen before. One theory is that he could attempt to block Donald by barely blocking him at all. New England could try to use Donald’s aggression against him, allowing the tackle to play his way out of position.
This will be Donald’s first Super Bowl, suggesting his adrenaline will be at a career-high level. If Donald over-pursues in his attempt to disrupt the Patriots, Brady could counter by unleashing New England’s dangerous short-pass game. Running back James White caught a Super Bowl-record 14 passes two years ago, and he had 15 catches in the Patriots’ playoff-opening win over the Chargers.
“You can tell that those guys definitely want to set the tone early and often,” Mason said of the Rams’ defensive front. “They waste no time being physical.”
New England has given up zero sacks and only three quarterback hits in its first two postseason games. After beating Kansas City in the AFC championship game, Brady posted a picture of his jersey on social media, complete with no grass stains.
“We take a lot of pride in it,” Mason said. “That’s our guy. When he doesn’t get touched or doesn’t get sacked, it goes a long way with us.”
A repeat performance Sunday could take the Patriots all the way.