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Aaron Donald's modest persona obscures crazy talent

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LONDON -- Twelve miles from Windsor Castle in the Surrey countryside, the Los Angeles Rams practiced American football this week in the home of England Rugby. Yet it might as well have been a New Jersey sports bar with all the questions about Odell Beckham Jr.

The fascination with the Giants receiver is understandable. He's a transformative talent who sells. The fascination is also a shame because an equally excellent player quietly roams these very grounds at Pennyhill Park past the tasteful portraits, fireplaces and ivy walls. Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, drafted the pick after Beckham in 2014, has already arrived as the league's most dominant defensive force.

Quiet greatness

Donald is hardly an NFL secret. He backed up his Defensive Rookie of the Year campaign with a 2015 season that ranks among any season authored by a defensive player since the turn of the century, including Darrelle Revis (at his peak) and J.J. Watt.

So what makes him so good?

"Pound for pound, he can generate more power than most anyone in the National Football League," Rams defensive line coach Mike Waufle said. "He may not have the height but he has the arm length of a 6-foot-5 man. [Donald is an even 6-1.] The strength level is phenomenal. You gotta remember, this guy ran a [4.68] 40 at the combine. The combination of strength, speed and power is the physical part.

"The mental part of it is ... We share a meeting room. When I come in, I want to prepare for my meetings. I'm a teacher and I want to prepare my classroom. And I always have to wait for him to get done because he beats me into the classroom."

There is a general understanding that Donald is a great player. But he still doesn't get the true national attention and respect as one of the league's truly transcendent talents. That lack of recognition can be boiled down to three reasons:

1) He's low-key.

Donald's not going to give a salacious quote. As laid back off the field as he is ferocious on it, Donald is visibly uncomfortable talking about himself. He steers the conversation back to his team. He talks about what he needs to do better and how early he is in his football journey. Asked to explain to a British audience what makes him so good, Donald wouldn't bite.

"I'm just a football player. I'm just a guy. There's nothing special about me," Donald said Thursday.

If Beckham's off-field image feels calculated, then Donald's lack of image is calculated in its own way, too. He doesn't need the adulation, much less seek it out. There are stories of Donald punishing himself in the weight room just days after the regular season ended. There are stories of Donald throwing down three different opponents on a single play. He's just not going to be the one to tell you those stories.

Half the questions to Rams coach Jeff Fisher at Thursday's press conference were about Beckham, in large part because of the Giants receiver's erratic behavior on the field and his persona off it. You get the sense Donald likes it that way.

"[Beckham's] an offensive player. It's an offensive league," Donald said.

2) His best plays don't show up in the box score.

The amount of pressure Donald creates from defense tackle laps the competition. Pro Football Focus, which graded Donald the best player in football last year at any position has Donald down for 35 pressures in 2016. The next-closest interior lineman has 23. (A pressure can be a sack, QB hit or hurry.) While Donald only has three sacks this season, he's more than doubling all other defensive tackles in QB hits.

"I don't think words can explain what he does for our defense," cornerback E.J. Gaines said in awe. "I'm just excited to be on the same field as him."

What stands out from watching Donald's snaps on Game Pass are the plays he deletes without ever showing up in the box score. A quarterback will rush a throw incomplete or give up on a play when he sees Donald coming. His hits and hurries force mistakes. So many of the plays in the video below are examples of him demolishing a down without getting any conventional credit for it.

Most great defensive linemen aren't equally great in every situation. Donald is just as effective on third-and-long as he is on first-and-goal. While most defensive linemen love taking down the quarterback best, Donald told me he takes just as much pride in his run-stopping ability.

The stats back him up. Donald's 21 tackles for a loss on rushing plays since the start of last year are the most at any position. PFF ranked him as the league's best pass rusher and run stuffer last year at defensive tackle, a feat he's nearly repeating this season. (He's currently No. 3 in run defense and leads pass rushing by a mile.)

He is an advanced metrics darling, which doesn't exactly raise his profile nationally. That brings us to our third reason he's been overlooked: The jersey he wears.

3) He played for a mediocre team in St. Louis.

The Rams moving to Los Angeles should result in a larger profile for Donald. At least that's what Waufle believes:

"We're in L.A. now, not St. Louis. Just give him time."

The only problem with that theory: The Rams still need to get better around Donald. There's only going to be so much attention on a defensive tackle on a team that is dealing with the same 7-9 bull----, no matter where they play.

The fourth quarter of last week's game against Detroit was a great example of Donald's uphill battle. In a tight game where the Rams cornerbacks were embarrassed -- short two defensive line starters -- Donald did everything humanly possible to close the game out.

He hit Matthew Stafford, forcing an incompletion. He had a sack that was overturned by a teammate's penalty. He stuffed Lions running back Justin Forsett short of the sticks on second-and-1. He hit Stafford again. In a play that can only be properly enjoyed with coaches film, he tossed aside a double team and then grabbed Forsett from behind like an afterschool bully who won't let some poor freshman get by him. All these plays happened on one drive.

By the time Donald sacked Stafford in a tie game with under two minutes left, I expected the DT to shout to the heavens: "What more do you want from me?!"

Asked about the sequence this week, Donald only expressed regret he couldn't do more. That's the trick about being an interior defensive lineman. Sometimes you can only do so much. (See: J.J. Watt's season on a 2-14 team.) The Lions still hit a long field goal after Donald's sack. Rams quarterback Case Keenum threw an interception on the ensuing drive. Donald needs more help and there is some reason to believe he'll get it in London.

A breakout in London?

All of Donald's hits should start turning into sacks soon enough, with the return of teammate Robert Quinn at defensive end helping matters greatly.

It was almost comical to watch how much opponents geared their game plans around Donald the last three weeks in Quinn's absence.

"I've just been getting a lot of attention," Donald said. "Lot of double teams, a lot of slide protection. It's going to come. I haven't had that big game yet this year with three or four sacks, but it's going to come."

Waufle echoed the same point.

"You can't hit a QB in the league and not have a penalty. So he's hitting the quarterback. You're talking microseconds. It's not even a second he's that far away. This game is funny. It can just like that," Waulfe said, snapping his fingers. "It can add up fast."

With Quinn back facing the Giants' shaky offensive tackles, New York will be forced to slide protection his way at times. Donald excelled even when Quinn was hurt last year, but the two players on the field at the same time offers a different dynamic. It was only three seasons ago that Quinn was the Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

Watching the two pass rushers side by side makes running back Todd Gurley into a regular fanboy.

"It surprises me every game. It's like 'Damn, did they just do that?' On third down, (Aaron) and Rob, it's just ridiculous. It's scary," Gurley said.

Donald noted that his opponent Sunday, Giants right guard Justin Pugh, is a familiar foe from their college guys. Pugh has shorter arms and Donald expressed confidence in the matchup in the least trash-talking way possible.

That's just Donald's (lack of) style. Now in his third season, he's on a trajectory to be another legendary Rams defensive lineman, updating the franchise's proud Fearsome Foursome history in Los Angeles. Waufle believes that Donald is cut in the same mold of former Vikings defensive tackle John Randle and former Buc Warren Sapp, two other short defensive tackles who wound up in Canton.

Donald has the type of talent that doesn't come along often, the type of talent Fisher calls "special" despite Donald's protests, the type of talent that eventually will be recognized as that of the best defensive player in football. Waufle saw it from Day 1.

"The first meeting, I turned around and I said to him: 'I'm going to say a lot of things in this classroom. Don't listen to any of them. You just get lined up and you play like you play. I don't want to change you one bit.' "

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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