There was a moment in the Los Angeles Rams’ 38-31 win over the Vikings in 2018 when Troy Aikman laughed at how easily Aaron Donald can turn professional guards into Keystone Kops.
“Donald overtakes Mike Remmers before he even leaves his position!” The Hall of Famer turned analyst marveled when Donald exploded from his three-technique position, swam through Remmers and dropped Latavius Murray to no gain as Remmers whirled in the wake before landing on his back 4 meters behind the line of scrimmage.
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer was asked this week about the relatively indescribable game as a classic example of the rare erasure ability of a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Zimmer’s current squad – 7-7, hooked on last place in the NFC playoffs and without Dalvin Cook (reserve / COVID-19) – take on the Rams (10-4) at US Bank Stadium on Sunday in the first meeting since Donald put a red-hot Kirk Cousins in that prime-time shootout in LA three years ago.
Sometimes, the reporter told Zimmer, Donald’s dominance feels like some kind of lopsided confrontation you’d see at the high school level.
“Yes,” Zimmer said, “unfortunately it is.”
So what’s the antidote for this six-time first-team All-Pro convenience store?
“Well,” Zimmer said, “there are things that you have to try to do. It’s not that you can do it all the time. There are things that we can try to do, but I will not go into detail. “
Whatever they are, they better work. Avoiding consecutive non-playoff seasons for the first time in the Zimmer era could hinge on No.99’s game plan.
Many Aries faces have been improved since the Vikings last saw them. Jalen Ramsey, Leonard Floyd, Von Miller, Odell Beckham Jr. and, of course, former Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford have joined owner Stan Kroenke’s overall effort to create a Hollywood dream team whose only acceptable ending is. for this season is to win Super Bowl LVI at home at SoFi Stadium.
But make no mistake about it. The key to beating Los Angeles on Sunday begins with neutralizing Donald, the Rams’ greatest force, with a better inside offensive line than three years ago but still weakness against Akiem Hicks of Chicago, Kenny Clark of Green Bay and , of course, “the best” three-technique defensive lineman Zimmer, 65, says he has ever seen.
“[Donald’s] has great determination, which I think is part of it, ”Zimmer said. “But also, he’s got excellent speed and strength, and so when you combine those two, the guys can give you a little kick and then give you power, or they can just run by you.”
Cook saw it, smelled it.
“The path [Donald] hands in and out [of blocks], the way he attacks defenders, the way his mind deals with even before the ball is broken… it’s crazy, “he said.” We have to find a way to deal with it.
Cook said on Wednesday, when the Vikings thought they would be at full strength, as wide receiver Adam Thielen prepared to come back from an ankle injury. A day later, COVID-19 handed the Vikings a potential season-altering punch.
Bad fall in attack
Even with Cook, the Vikings’ last 19 possessions have included nine punts, three interceptions and one turnover on downs. In last week’s 17-9 win over the Bears, Cousins completed just 12 of 24 passes for 87 yards, a career low as a starter.
Pro Football Focus noted that Cousins is 0 for 18 assists when under pressure in the last two games.
The Bears have sacked Cousins four times, a season high. Two of them occurred during Hicks’ dismemberment of the undersized Mason Cole in the right guard.
Cole suffered an elbow injury while giving up six presses in total in that game. Oli Udoh, who is bigger but leads the league in shots on goal with 15, will likely return to right guard, where he started the first 11 games before moving on to left tackle for two games and then benched. last week.
Three years ago in Los Angeles, the inside line was Remmers at right guard, Pat Elflein at center and Tom Compton at left guard. Remmers and Compton ended the year by granting the third and twelfth pushes among goalies, according to PFF. Elflein gave up the third highest number of crosses.
This year, Udoh and left guard Ezra Cleveland allowed the fifth and 16th presses among the guards, respectively. In just 10 games, Garrett Bradbury has consistently allowed the ninth most pressure among centers.
The complete package
As a three-way technique, Donald typically lines up between the guard and the tackle. He’s versatile enough to move anywhere to exploit a weakness. And he leads all inside NFL linemen in sacks (11) and pressures (74). The second highest pressure total is 53.
In a win over the Cardinals two weeks ago, Donald posted a career-high 14 presses against Kyler Murray, according to PFF.
Donald’s previous career record? Yes, 2018, when he had 13 against Cousins.
“We obviously need to know where Aaron is,” Cousins said. “And also, hopefully, don’t put him in a position where he’s sort of playing with the wind at his back, allowing him to scurry up and pin his ears.”
Yes, it’s never a good thing when you’re fighting a future first-round Hall of Fame member who still proves at age 30 that he shouldn’t have lasted until the 13th pick – four places after the Vikings selected Anthony Barr – from the 2014 NFL Draft.
“Tome, [Donald] has a bit of a combination of John Randle and La’Roi Glover, ”said Vikings defensive co-coordinator Andre Patterson, a longtime defensive line coach who coached Randle, the Viking Hall of Fame and Glover. in Dallas.
“He’s got Johnny skills, and when he got out of Pitt, that’s what I said, ‘This guy has John Randle skills,’ and a lot of people were scared because he only weighed 282 lbs. But he’s proven he’s strong and can handle that weight in the running game. He turned out to be the best three-way technique in the game today. “
The Vikings saw him up close in the dying moments of that 2018 shootout. The cousins’ final numbers that day were impressive – 36 of 50 for 422 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 117 rating, 2 smugglers – but Donald had the last word. He had two sacks in the fourth quarter and was instrumental in the backpacks turnover which essentially ended the game with 90 seconds left.
Fast forward three years and three months to Sunday, the Viking offensive wants to both get back on track and slow Donald down. That should add a win to their shaky but ultimately successful two-game streak.
Cook was asked if he thinks the Vikings need to lead the table in the final three weeks of the season.
“We don’t want to be in a scenario where, ‘Two teams have to lose, this team has to win …'” he said. “If we win every game, then the ball is in our court to take control of our own destiny.… If we keep winning, we don’t have to worry. Don’t worry about the Vikings.”
A day later the Vikings had much more to fear. Suddenly, they ran out of Cooks while the Rams still had 280 pounds from Aaron Donald.