Dougherty: Packers must devise ways to keep Rams' Aaron Donald from disrupting offense
GREEN BAY - An offensive assistant coach for a rival in the NFC West has a telltale sign for a team’s chances of beating the Los Angeles Rams.
“In the first 30 plays if Aaron Donald is in the backfield seven or eight times, you’re going to lose,” the coach said Monday. “That means he’s disrupting you.”
That’s challenge No. 1 for the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round of the playoffs Saturday. They have the NFL’s top-scoring offense and likely MVP in Aaron Rodgers, but they’ll be facing the league leader in fewest points allowed and the likely defensive player of the year in the Rams and Donald.
The Rams are not a one-man defense – they also have maybe the best cornerback in the game in Jalen Ramsey, as well as revitalized outside rusher Leonard Floyd as part of their formidable front line – but when game planning for them, you start with Donald.
Donald is the most decorated defensive player in the league and at age 29 still appears to be near the peak of his powers, though in the Rams’ wild-card win over Seattle on Saturday he sustained an injury to ribs cartilage that prevented him from returning to the game. Still, Rams coach Sean McVay said he expects to have Donald for Saturday, and the expectation is Donald will be physically capable of playing well.
“Rib cartilage is painful, but you can play,” said the aforementioned coach. “It kind of hurts when you’re breathing hard, kind of feels like someone is stabbing you in the chest. It will be hard for him to do arm-over (moves) because it’s hard to raise your hand. But they’re going to numb it. They’ll give him a (pain-killing) shot before the game and another at halftime.”
Donald is finishing another dominating season in which he was named first-team All-Pro for the sixth time in his seven-year career – he was one of only two unanimous selections this year – and his 13½ sacks tied for second most in the league.
If he’s named defensive player of the year, which appears to be a given, it will be the third time he has won that award. That will tie him with Lawrence Taylor and J.J. Watt for most in the history of the award, which dates to 1971.
In the playoffs, it often comes down to match-ups, and the question for this one is, how do the Packers keep Donald from dominating the game? Because at least on paper, the Rams match up well.
Donald is the key to a defensive front that can pressure the quarterback with four – the Rams often line up Donald on one side of the line and Floyd (10½ sacks) on the other, and they finished the season second in the league in sacks with 53. They also have one of the best secondaries in the league, starting with cornerbacks Ramsey and Darious Williams, who had a 42-yard interception return for a touchdown against Russell Wilson on Saturday.
That combination – an effective four-man rush and strong cornerback play – is exactly the kind of defense that has the best chance against Rodgers.
“(Donald) is a great pass rusher, but I’d run at him,” said a scout who works for another team in the NFC West. “He and Floyd. You’re going to get that natural crease, a backside cut, there’s a lot of things happening in the run. But if you try to block (Donald) one on one in a pass rush, that’s where he eats you up.”
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This is where Aaron Jones, Jamaal Williams and 247-pound rookie AJ Dillon could be more important than ever for LaFleur. The run threat they provide, most especially Jones, has been one of the keys to Rodgers' MVP-caliber season and could be the key to whether the Packers can put up enough points to beat the NFL's best defense.
According to a story in The Athletic last week, Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley plays more two-deep safety than any team in the league and runs his varied coverages and disguises off that. If Jones, Williams and Dillon run the ball well enough, they could blow up Staley’s game plan.
Staley, though, will try to find the best match-up he can for Donald, which could mean lining him up over right guard Lucas Patrick as much as possible. The Packers surely will end up double teaming him regularly but also hoping they might use his aggressiveness against him. As good as Donald is, he's only about 285 pounds and is a disruptor, not a road block, against the run.
“(Donald) is a playmaker,” the assistant coach said. “If he’s not sacking the quarterback, he’s threatening him. There are certainly ways you can try to handle him. One is run the ball. He can get out of position in the run game sometimes because he takes chances and shoots gaps and stuff like that. He’s just a playmaker, and they give him free rein.”
Adding another layer of interest in the match-up is that the Packers run the same zone-run-based offensive scheme as McVay. Both Matt LaFleur and McVay learned the scheme from 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan when all three were with Washington. And LaFleur was McVay’s offensive coordinator in 2017, so the Packers coach should have extra insight into some of the Rams’ personnel, very much including Donald.
“I promise you that will help (the Packers),” the assistant coach said of LaFleur’s season with the Rams. “He knows who (Donald) is and he knows his weaknesses and he knows what’s been effective against him. When you practice against a guy all the time ….”
The other big match-up is Ramsey against Davante Adams. Ramsey is the highest-paid cornerback in the league and presumably will shadow Adams as much as possible. But the Packers will probably move Adams around a lot to make that more difficult. Adams himself was only one vote shy of joining Donald as a unanimous first-team All-Pro.
If Ramsey can take Adams out of the game without needing much help in coverage, that would take a big bite out of the Packers’ offense. The scout wouldn’t go so far as to predict Ramsey will do it, but he considers it at least a possibility.
“(Ramsey) is probably the best (cornerback) in the game,” the scout said. “He’s got that size-speed combination, good length. He pretty much shut (Seattle’s) DK Metcalf down. … But they’ll be challenged to guard (Adams), no question. He’s a more accomplished receiver than DK Metcalf. Metcalf is all about vertical stretch, big play, throw it up and let me run underneath. (Adams) actually runs routes, creates separation. He’ll be a little bit more of a challenge than DK Metcalf.”
The Packers go into this game as a seven-point favorite for good reason. To start with, they’ve got a big advantage at quarterback with Rodgers over Jared Goff.
But the Rams match up with them well. With the league’s No. 1 offense facing its No. 1 defense, something’s got to give.
It might all come down to Aaron Donald. He’s always a difference maker, but can LaFleur, Rodgers and the Packers prevent him from being the difference?