Aaron Donald deserving of Defensive Player of Year consideration

Aaron Donald had three sacks Sunday, a big game in what has been a defensive MVP-like season for the defensive tackle. AP Photo/L.G. Patterson

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- There's a certain irony in the effort to find new ways to describe St. Louis Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald's dominance. Donald doesn't say much, he mostly lets his play do the talking.

But for those given the pleasure of watching Donald pursue the perfection of his craft, the superlatives are running low.

I know, I tried. I called Merriam. I sent message to Webster via carrier pigeon. I'm still waiting for Oxford to return my emails. Maybe it's best to just leave it at this: You might find the few defensive players as gifted as Donald if you search far and wide, but you'd be hard-pressed to find one better. Yes, that includes Houston's all-world J.J. Watt.

"He’s playing at a level that I’ve not seen another defensive lineman play inside like that,” coach Jeff Fisher said last week. “And it’s just been overshadowed because of the five losses. But he’s playing really, really well.”

Donald stepped out of the shadows and back into the light Sunday, when he nearly single-handedly destroyed Detroit's offensive game plan and helped the Rams snap their five-game losing streak.

Donald posted five tackles, three sacks, three tackles for loss and six quarterback hits against the Lions. It was Donald's first three-sack game since arriving as the No. 13 overall pick in 2014. All of that production came despite a Detroit game plan that was clearly intent on trying to slow him down.

To wit, the Lions not only threw multiple blockers at Donald but rarely allowed quarterback Matthew Stafford to throw the ball down the field. Instead, the Lions hoped that quick, short passes would neutralize him.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Stafford did not attempt a pass thrown 20-plus yards downfield. He did, however, throw a career-high 14 screen passes, five more than any other game in his career. All told, Stafford’s average pass traveled 4.1 yards past the line of scrimmage, the lowest single-game average of his career.

"You take into consideration, there’s nothing against them, but they’ve had 10 days to prepare for Aaron Donald, and that just shows you the type of player he is," Fisher said. "They’re double-teaming him, he’s breaking double teams. We created some 1-on-1 matchups for him by call design, and when you do that, he usually wins.”

That Donald was still able to get to Stafford for three sacks is a testament to what happened when the Lions dared to have Stafford try something deeper than a three-step drop or a screen pass.

It was a performance that left just about everyone in awe -- except, of course, Donald himself. Asked if it was his best game yet, Donald demurred.

"I’ve still got work to do," Donald said. "I’ve still got a lot more work to do. I ain’t satisfied yet so I’ve just got to keep working."

The thought of Donald getting better than his 59 tackles, 11 sacks, 21 tackles for loss and 33 quarterback pressures through the first 13 games seems a bit outlandish. Then again, it didn't seem like Donald had much to improve on last offseason, but he went and did it.

Before the season, Donald worked with defensive line coach Mike Waufle on adding what he calls a "chop/club" move. He's nearly perfected an inside swim move, a trick not usually preferred by a player with Donald's lack of wingspan. But Donald is convinced that he can keep adding weapons to his holster so he can always be one step ahead of opposing offensive linemen.

"I worked my butt off in the offseason," Donald said. "Just having more pass rushes to change up with and work with helped me a lot this season, too. So I just feel a lot more comfortable. It’s just working for me."

In most cases, Donald's performance would have him atop the list of candidates for the Defensive Player of the Year award. It would be quite an encore to the Defensive Rookie of the Year award he earned last year. But the Rams are 5-8 and playing in a market that's currently fighting to keep the NFL. But those should be reasons to vote for Donald, not keep him out of the conversation.

Carolina's Josh Norman is having a big season but he's got major support from stars such as linebacker Luke Kuechly. Watt is doing what he always does and is definitely deserving of another award but hasn't been surrounded by as many moving pieces as Donald.

Donald has played all or part of the season missing key complementary pieces such as ends Robert Quinn and Chris Long, linebacker Alec Ogletree and cornerbacks E.J. Gaines, Trumaine Johnson and Janoris Jenkins.

He's produced despite all that, as defensive coordinator Gregg Williams refuses to allow Donald to go through games without creating at least a few favorable matchups.

“We’re trying to do some things with Aaron because the same way that you possibly would with a receiver or a running back, people are starting to, you’ll see, plan him," Williams said. "So, if they’re going to do that, I want to see if that quarterback or if that offensive line coach has a check system to find him. Sometimes we can force the declaration of what they’re going to run when all of the sudden they notice he’s in a different spot. What does that check system do? Are we smart enough, am I smart enough, to see what’s going on?

"We’re moving him around just so we can continue to have him as an advantage. And we can affect some thought processes going on in their huddles by the multiple positions he’s playing. There’s another complimentary thing with that is, you wouldn’t be able to do that if he wasn’t as sharp of a kid as he is. He’s a sharp kid and he takes a lot of pride in being kind of a young coach on the field. It’s been good for us and we’ll continue to do that with him.”

Aside from his happiness about winning again, the always humble Donald didn't have a much deeper critique of his latest performance against the Lions. He doesn't plan to bask in some sort of satisfaction, a point he made clear.

"When I’m done playing, probably," Donald said. "Right now, I’m still working."

The words will come later.