Aaron Donald making his presence felt with or without sacks

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — The Los Angeles Rams defense hasn’t allowed a touchdown through two victories this season.

But opponents haven’t allowed star defensive tackle Aaron Donald to record a sack.

It could come as a surprise that the two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, who had 20.5 sacks last season, has yet to take down a quarterback in 2019.

But perhaps it shouldn’t.

“Everybody’s gunning for him,” said defensive coordinator Wade Phillips before the opener. “We know everybody’s going to try to block two guys on him or three guys on him if they can. He’s had that, really, a lot last year, but I expect it more this year.”

Last season, Donald was double teamed on 64 percent of his pass rushes, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.

Through two games this season, that number is 65 percent, and it’s played a role in keeping Donald from filling stat sheets. He has one tackle for a loss.

“Everybody is sliding to him,” defensive end Michael Brockers said.

A lack of stats, however, doesn’t necessarily mean Donald’s production is down.

“A.D. creates so much emphasis, double teams, triple teams, the line — running backs chipping through that,” safety Eric Weddle said. “That’s huge opportunities for Brock, for [Dante], for Samson, like all these guys are going to have opportunities every game that — you can’t just sleep on the other guy now.”

Three players — Brockers and pass-rushers Clay Matthews and Dante Fowler — have combined for the team’s five sacks through two weeks.

In a Week 1 victory over the Carolina Panthers, Matthews sacked Cam Newton once and Fowler sacked Newton twice, which equaled Fowler’s sack total in eight regular-season games last season.

“It’s the best thing that I could have ever hoped for,” Fowler said about lining up next to Donald. Against the Panthers, Fowler had a pass rush win rate of 62 percent, the third-highest win rate since the start of the 2018 season, according to ESPN metrics powered by NFL Next Gen Stats.

A pass rush win is awarded when a pass-rusher beats his block within 2.5 seconds following the snap, which is roughly the average amount of time it takes a quarterback to throw a pass in the NFL.

Last Sunday, in a win over the New Orleans Saints, Donald knocked Drew Brees out of the game in the first quarter when he broke free and made hand-to-hand contact with the veteran quarterback as he got rid of the ball. Brees suffered a hand injury and is likely sidelined about six weeks.

On the ensuing series, Donald dropped running back Alvin Kamara for a 6-yard loss. And later, in the third quarter, Matthews and Brockers sacked quarterback Teddy Bridgewater on consecutive plays.

“Still not satisfied but it was a step,” Donald said after the 27-9 win. “I feel like a lot of guys made plays on the defensive line and that’s what it’s about. It ain’t just one guy, it’s a team game, and I’ll get myself better, I’ll keep working on my technique and trying to find ways to free myself and keep making plays.”

Said Rams coach Sean McVay: “He influenced and affected the game in a lot of ways. You see the way that he was able to create penetration consistently. He had a couple of plays where he’s getting in the backfield — it’s amazing how quickly he gets back there. … Draws a couple holding calls on some big plays that came out. He’s affecting the game in a huge way.”

Donald has a pass rush win rate of 27 percent through two games, down from his NFL-best 44 percent last season.

But his presence has elevated the play of teammates.

Fowler has the best pass rush win rate in the NFL at 35 percent.

“He is literally our focal point,” Weddle said of Donald. “It’s a huge benefit to have him and to have those guys rushing and to have playmakers on the edge that maybe we haven’t had in the past. It’s huge for us.”

Donald might be without a sack for now, but teammates are certain his sack drought won’t last long.

“As the season goes on, [opponents] are going to have to pick their poison on which guys to block,” Brockers said. “And that’s going to be really fun.”

Credits: ESPN

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