Another week, another high-level defensive lineman.
Check that: The highest-level defensive lineman.
When the New Orleans Saints (1-0) play the Los Angeles Rams (1-0) on Sunday in the L.A. Memorial Coliseum, the Rams defense will be anchored by tackle Aaron Donald, the most decorated defensive player of the last half-decade and the most disruptive one in the league over that period of time.
Donald has been named NFL Defensive Player of the Year the previous two seasons (2017 and ’18), is a four-time first-team All-Pro the past four years (2015-18) and a five-time Pro Bowler (2014-18) who was NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year (’14).
The accolades don’t lie and the Saints, who will be playing the Rams for the fourth time in their last 28 games (including playoffs) are well aware of what he can do. Donald had 11 sacks, 15 tackles for loss and five forced fumbles in ’17, then jumped to 20.5 sacks and 25 tackles for loss, with four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries, last year.
“He’s extremely athletic and active," Coach Sean Payton said Wednesday. "He’s very smart. He can get on an edge, he can key and diagnose very quickly. All the things you look for in someone playing that three-technique position."
“I don’t even have names for all the moves he can do to get to the quarterback,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “You cannot block him with one guy. He’s such an impact player, he can change a game. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anybody like him.”
In the season opener the Saints didn’t face one exactly like Donald, but they saw one who has compiled many days of disruption. That was Texans defensive end J.J. Watt.
New Orleans – and, primarily, right tackle Ryan Ramczyk – blockaded Watt, a former three-time Defensive Player of the Year. He didn’t register a tackle or quarterback hit for the first time in his 105 NFL games.
With Donald working mostly on the interior, part of the job of countering him will fall to rookie center Erik McCoy, who will have an eye-level look at him for much of the game.
“He’s an elite player,” McCoy said. “Pass game, run game, he’s very good. He’s very good with his hands, very good get-off and it’ll be a challenge for us, for sure.
“He’s just like J.J. Watt. He’s an elite player. Any guy like that requires special attention.”
Whatever attention is required, McCoy will be at the center of it, in his second NFL start. The first one, by all accounts, was a success.
“I would say it went pretty good, for sure,” he said. “There’s still a lot I have to improve on and I’m planning on getting better week in and week out. But I thought it was pretty good.”
Right guard Larry Warford said breaking the seal on the season only will be a positive for McCoy.
“Getting that first game out of your system, it just calms you down a lot,” Warford said. “I remember my rookie year, going into my first game, those jitters were just like, ‘Oh, God, I’m about to play my first game.’ It’s just like weight, really.
“Just super, super antsy and once you get that one out, you can focus on, ‘OK, I’ve done this before. What can I learn from this game, what can I do better?’ I think that he’s proved that he can adapt very quickly to any situation. He’s a smart player and I think he’s going to be ready for this game.”
They all will have to be, Warford said, because Donald will have help. But Donald often influences the production of the others.
“They have a bunch of disruptive players up front,” Warford said. “They work very, very well together. (But) Aaron Donald, obviously, I think is going to go down as one of the best to ever do it, ever play the game at his position. Rightfully so. He’s a powerful guy who’s got a lot of counters and is just hard to get ahold of.”