EARTH CITY, Mo. -- In case anyone forgot that St. Louis Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald has the ability to be the most dominant player on the field on any given day, he offered a resounding reminder in the team's third preseason game against Indianapolis.
Backed up to their 5-yard line, the Colts simply wanted to move the chains and find some breathing room. So they handed it off to running back Daniel Herron, who attempted to find a crease up the middle. Donald met him at the line of scrimmage and Herron fell forward for a gain of 1.
On the next play, the Colts tried Herron again, this time toward right guard. Donald beat his man so quickly that he was nearly able to steal the handoff and he converged with fellow tackle Michael Brockers for a 3-yard loss.
On third down, the Colts clearly hadn't learned their lesson as they again tried Herron and again Donald was in the backfield so fast that Herron had barely even taken a step forward. The result? A 2-yard loss.
You will have to excuse Herron if he hires Leonardo DiCaprio to perform an inception to remove Donald from his mind. Those three plays yielded minus-4 yards with Donald making all three tackles. Which brings up an important question heading into 2015. Is Donald getting better?
The answer, it seems, is an easy yes.
"I’ll tell you this, and I really do believe this," defensive coordinator Gregg Williams said. "Last year you guys talked to me a lot about the fact that you wanted me to compare him to people that have already played the game way before him. And you know what? He is his own person. I really believe he just scratched the surface last year."
Cue the alarm bells in Seattle, San Francisco, Arizona and every other team that has to try to contend with Donald in 2015. Improvement upon his rookie season would require a year that would go down in history as one of the most productive ever for a defensive tackle.
That's because Donald's Defensive Rookie of the Year award came last season after he posted nine sacks, which was the most among rookies and second among all defensive tackles. He also led the team in tackles for loss with 17, throwing in 12 quarterback hits and 32 quarterback pressures according to coaches review of the game film.
So improvement shouldn't come easy for Donald going into Year 2, right? After all, teams now have film on him and should be able to scheme ways to better block him. Sounds nice in theory but it doesn't account for one important factor: Donald didn't even take over a starting role and the snaps that go with it until the Rams' fifth game in 2014.
In other words, almost all of that rookie production came in the final three-quarters of the season.
"He’s worked very, very hard the entire offseason," coach Jeff Fisher said. "All of the things he accomplished last year, he started this offseason on a mission. He’s in great shape. He has a good feel. He knows every snap he has a chance to win and he’s motivated by that. That’s going to be good for us and [make him] very hard to block this year."
Donald has taken plenty of steps to ensure that Fisher's words prove prophetic. From the moment the Rams used the No. 13 overall pick on Donald in the 2014 draft, he quickly gained favor with coaches and veterans for his voracious work ethic. Stories are often told of players being the first in the building, but Donald is known for occasionally arriving when the coaches do as the sun comes up.
Teammates say when they arrive they often find Donald in the film room with breakfast, watching and taking notes on himself and/or that week's opponent. The soft-spoken Donald doesn't much care for the accolades or hype that come with things like his Pro Bowl berth or the rally towel bearing his name and jersey the team will give away in Sunday's opener against Seattle.
What Donald does care about is finding a way to improve daily.
"I haven’t played my best football yet," Donald said. "I feel like I’ve got a lot of football things I need to work on to have that success that I want to have in this league."
Pushed to name some things that he believes he needs to work on, Donald points to technical things so small that the average person wouldn't be able to identify them by watching the tape. Defensive line coach Mike Waufle has essentially taken a hands-off approach with his prodigy, afraid that too much tinkering will have a negative impact on Donald's performance.
In practice, Donald tries to identify two or three things he perceives as a weakness and improve on those things daily. Although he had a dominant rookie season, it still bugs Donald that he didn't have two sacks in any single game last season, even though he managed to post a string of six in seven games.
And if Donald takes the next step and reaches, say, 12 sacks and 25 tackles for loss, it's a safe bet that he will come back next year discussing all the ways he can get better again.
"You can never be satisfied until you are done playing this game," Donald said. "So I’m just working."