Analysis Notebook: Week 8
There is little doubt that Aaron Donald is special. From the outset the Rams rookie was different to most defensive tackles – because he is vastly smaller than average at the position – but he has always made up for that with devastating quickness and fantastic hands.
Even a guy like Geno Atkins – a relatively undersized DT himself and a comparison often drawn for Donald – has him by around 18 pounds. That’s like carrying around an extra spare car tire in weight. The NFL has traditionally shied away from such lightweight players in the middle because they can be bullied by much larger offensive linemen, often outweighing somebody like Donald by around 40+ pounds.
Phil Loadholt, the first player to appear on the wrong end of Donald’s NFL highlight reel (below), checks in at 343 pounds, 58 more than Donald.
Like Atkins, though, Donald’s size isn’t a problem because of his quickness. Your relative lack of size is only an issue if you allow those bigger players to get their hands on you and outmuscle you away from the point of attack. Donald has the kind of speed to make sure that doesn’t happen. He is quick enough to beat blocks to the point of attack, shooting gaps and blowing plays up in the backfield before they ever get anywhere near the line of scrimmage.
It didn’t take long for him to demonstrate that kind of speed and burst off the line. Way back in the first game of the regular season he destroyed a running play against the Vikings by beating Loadholt’s down block and arriving to tackle Adrian Peterson at the exchange with the quarterback.
You can see Donald about to run right into Peterson as he is receiving the ball, and left in his wake is Loadholt desperately trying to pull him back and prevent disaster. We can’t be too hard on Loadholt, though, because Donald has been doing this with incredible regularity. He did exactly the same thing to the Chiefs this week which started me on this article in the first place and led to this tweet containing a vine of that play:
— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) October 28, 2014
Donald is quick enough off the line to change the angles offensive linemen need to deal with. On the play against the Chiefs, and even the one against Minnesota, the tackles tasked with executing a down block on him don’t actually do much wrong. Eric Fisher and Loadholt move when you would expect them to, to the point you would expect them to target, it’s just than Donald isn’t there when they do. He is already through the gap and closing on the running back at that point.
But Donald isn’t just about pure speed. He also has strength and incredible hands which help him fight off blocks. If he was just about speed and burst off the line sooner or later linemen would learn to adjust. He could shock them with that burst to begin with, but they would adapt. He has shown an arsenal of other weapons that make it likely he will continue to be a problem for offenses for as long as he is on the field.
Take a look at this play against the Buccaneers:
This move is Watt-esque. Donald gives the same first step as everybody else before kicking back underneath LG Logan Mankins with his next step and swimming past the lunge form the guard. It’s quickness of a different kind to the plays above, and shows fantastic hand speed to swat away the attempted block and get through to the backfield cleanly.
His quickness is also teamed with the kind of strength to hold his line and make it through the gaps he attacks, rather than being washed down the line by bigger blockers when they finally get their hands on him.
Here Donald attacks the large B-gap outside of LG James Carpenter:
There is a sizeable gap to attack, but Carpenter actually gets pretty good contact on Donald as he tries to get through.
From this point you might expect Carpenter to be able to drive the smaller player down the line and at least string the block out and give the running back somewhere to go, but Donald displayed fantastic technique to drop his weight, lower his shoulder to the block and power all the way through into the backfield, ending up right in front of where Marshawn Lynch wanted to take the ball and stopping him for a loss on the play. This is the kind of play that many NFL people were wondering if Donald could make at this level playing at the size and weight he plays at.
In college it might work, but coming up against a 320-pound guard like Carpenter would he still have that power? The answer, it seems, is an unequivocal yes.
As if it needed reinforcing, he did it to the 49ers too:
Again, his initial quickness helps beat the angle block from C Daniel Kilgore, but it’s his power that allows him to drive through the contact and turn the corner to actually turn it into a big play against the run. Too many NFL players make the strong initial move and then fail to finish it, losing balance and control and ending up being blocked too deep into the backfield. Donald has an incredible center of gravity to be able to stay tight to the path he wants to take and then close on the running back.
There are some impressive performances over half a season from this crop of rookies. Khalil Mack in Oakland and Anthony Barr in Minnesota have made some big plays and had some impressive games, but there might not be a more impressive looking rookie than Aaron Donald right now.
Donald struck me as a prospect coming into the league that he could be Geno Atkins II, but like Atkins I expected an initial learning phase where he struggled in the running game while excelling as a pass-rusher. There was a point in his career where Atkins struggled in the run game so much I wondered if he would be limited to a situational player in this league. Donald is already beyond that, and in fact has been better against the run than he has as a pass-rusher. He has already mastered what it took Atkins a year or so to work out – that he can attack and play the run on the other side of the line of scrimmage.
Donald is currently PFF’s second-ranked defensive tackle, trailing only Gerald McCoy, and he actually heads the run-defense grades at the position.
He has 14 total pressures, 13th among DTs, the same rank as his Pass Rushing Productivity. His pass rush has been solid, if not spectacular. The encouraging thing is that he has dominated at the area that people would have been more concerned by coming into the league. He has already shown he can be an every-down player, now he just needs to convert those skills into a bit more pass-rushing production.
Who knows where Donald’s ceiling lies, and how good he can really be. Whether he can become as good as Geno Atkins became remains to be seen, but halfway into his rookie season he is well ahead of the curve set by Atkins.
Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam