By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Rams are a deep, talented, and balanced football team. But there’s ultimately just one key player against the Patriots, and he wears No. 99.
Aaron Donald is well on his way to another AP Defensive Player of the Year award, having already earned the honor from Pro Football Focus and the Pro Football Writers. He broke the single-season sack record for an interior defensive lineman with 20.5, and also led the league with 25 tackles for loss and 41 quarterback hits. He’s simply the most dangerous interior pass rusher in football.
For a Patriots offensive line that has passed some serious tests in January, Donald and the Rams are the biggest of the season in Super Bowl LIII.
“Aaron Donald is the best defensive football player in the league, there’s no doubt about that,” said center David Andrews on Wednesday. “So it’s going to be a big challenge. We’re going to have to do a lot of things well.”
Donald is obviously one of the key players of the entire Super Bowl, regardless of position or matchup. But for the Patriots, the ripple effect of neutralizing him really could be the key to everything.
If the line can keep Donald away from Tom Brady long enough to get rid of the ball effectively, the rest of the Rams defense may not have enough to contain the Patriots for 60 minutes. They almost certainly can’t stop Brady in a late, crunch-time type of situation if Donald isn’t making an impact.
But if he can consistently break through the interior and move Brady off his spots – arguably the one thing you absolutely have to do to have a chance of slowing him down – the Super Bowl becomes an entirely different game. Donald controlling the trenches would make it much easier for Super Bowl newcomer Jared Goff to keep up with Brady and overcome potential mistakes of his own.
For Donald, it’s going to be harder to take over than many outside of New England may realize.
The Patriots O-line has dominated its two playoff matchups, which both looked formidable on paper. Against the Chargers and Chiefs, they allowed a combined zero sacks and three QB hits – on 90 pass attempts. They also ran the ball 82 times for 331 yards and eight touchdowns.
Still, the challenge of blocking Donald is on a different level.
He’s already creating a lot of prep work for head coach Bill Belichick, who was asked in his Tuesday conference call what stands out about Donald.
“Everything,” said Belichick. “Pretty much unblockable.”
Belichick quickly acknowledged that the Rams have other explosive players to worry about along their defensive line. Between containing the lot of Ndamukong Suh, Michael Brockers, and Dante Fowler Jr., among others, there may be points in the game where it’s Donald against a single blocker.
“Definitely going to be a task for us,” said right guard Shaq Mason on Wednesday. “They have a great front, and those two guys in the interior – you know, their names ring bells and they’re definitely worthy of it. We’re looking forward to competing with those guys.”
It’s also the biggest test of the season, and an opportunity to paint a blocking masterpiece, for Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia. He’s in a good spot this season, bringing back four of the same starters from the Patriots’ last two Super Bowl appearances.
“Scar” has this group, the most consistent on the team since September, playing its best football at the most important time of the season. Do they have one more big game in them against Donald and company? It’s easy to be confident that Scarnecchia conducts another virtuoso performance.
“I mean, day-in and day-out, he’s on us, he’s pushing us,” said Mason of Scarnecchia. “He gets the best out of us, and we all love playing for him, want to play for him. Going out there, it’s more of we’re all playing for each other, but we’re also playing for Dante because we know how much he puts into us. We like giving it back to him.”
Super Bowl LIII could very well boil down to what happens on the interior when the Patriots have the ball. Donald’s impact (or lack thereof) can swing the Super Bowl more wildly than any other player.
If the Patriots can win that matchup, they’ll have a much greater chance of winning the rest.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.