Patriots OL gearing up to face Rams star Aaron Donald

ATLANTA -- The interior of the New England Patriots' offensive line fully understands it has a problem on its hands heading into Super Bowl LIII against the Los Angeles Rams.

Center David Andrews and guards Shaq Mason and Joe Thuney will see a lot of All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald, whose 20.5 sacks led the league in 2018. And Donald, one of the NFL's dominant defensive players, is capable of taking over a game if allowed.

Heading into Sunday's championship game, though, the trio of blockers won't require a motivational message from Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia on how good Donald truly is.

Instead, all Andrews, Mason and Thuney need to do is put on the film to grasp what's in store when the Patriots and Rams take the field.

"We tell them the traits of the guys and what their qualities are, but when you watch it, you say, 'Oh, s---. Look at this,'" Scarnecchia told NFL.com. "I think they all appreciate him for what he is. They all know we're going to have to be at our best and we're going to have to work together as much as we ever have to keep this guy under wraps."

As the saying goes, the tape doesn't lie. Andrews explained the challenges of facing off against Donald, who was the only unanimous first-team All-Pro selection in 2018.

"He's quick off the ball, powerful, he's never blocked," Andrews said. "You might think you have him and the next thing you know he's past you. He's a great player. He's at the top of his game right now."

Thuney echoed his teammate.

"He's one of the top MVP leading candidates, so that speaks for itself," Thuney said. "He's got tremendous numbers and he's really, really an elite player."

Beyond the sacks


The Rams finished the 2018 regular season with losses against the New Orleans Saints, Chicago Bears and Philadelphia Eagles.

A common theme in those defeats reflects that Donald didn't record a sack. And some all-star players from the three teams told NFL.com at the Pro Bowl that one of the keys to beating the Rams was to neutralize Donald.

Sounds simple enough, right? Not so fast.

"It's easier said than done," Mason said emphatically. "They have a great defense as a whole, not just one guy."

The Patriots' right guard is correct, of course, as the Rams' defensive line also boasts Ndamukong Suh, Michael Brockers and Dante Fowler Jr.

But as Donald goes, so goes the Rams' defense when considering an elite player like Donald elevates the play of others around him. And in Donald's case, the Rams don't necessarily need him to put the quarterback on the ground every game to make an impact, as evidenced in the two playoff games leading to the Super Bowl.

"I'll say this: He didn't sack the quarterback in the last two weeks, but he's played his best two games," Rams defensive line coach Bill Johnson told NFL.com. "Everything he did was what he was supposed to do for us to win that game.

"There's this thing about playing the run, too. He has played the run very well, very stout, so the two teams we played and this team coming up? That's as important as sacking the quarterback."

In the NFC Divisional Round against the Dallas Cowboys, Donald totaled two tackles, including a tackle for a loss, but his ability to command attention freed up others to attack the football. The same thing basically happened against the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Championship Game, where Donald tallied two two tackles for a loss and three quarterback hits.

Both performances came against two of the league's better rushing units; the Cowboys, whose ground attack ranked 10th in the league, managed just 50 yards rushing, and the Saints, owners of the league's sixth-best rushing game, totaled 48 yards on the ground.

Patriots running back James White, who figures to see a lot of Donald out of the backfield, summed it up best:

"He's just a dominant football player," White said.

'This is the real deal'


Donald put together a season not often seen from a defensive player, and he joined Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor (20.5 sacks in 1986) as the only players in league history to total 20-plus sacks in a season for a team that advanced to the Super Bowl.

While he doesn't have a sack in two playoff games, the Patriots should be put on notice that Donald is primed for an explosion when considering he hasn't gone three games without a sack since Weeks 1-3 of the 2018 regular season.

The 6-foot-1, 280-pound Donald is a perfect blend of size, strength, agility and speed, and he uses the physical attributes to beat blockers with a variety of moves ranging from a straight bull rush to inside or outside technique to get after an opposing quarterback.

In addition to his sacks, Donald enters Sunday's matchup with 77 quarterback pressures, including the two playoff games, which ranks first in the league, according to Next Gen Stats.

Rams guard Rodger Saffold knows all about Donald's skill set from practicing against him, and quickly came to a realization that his defensive teammate was something special.

"Every time we had one-on-ones, it would be huge collisions, lots of hand fighting and just power," Saffold said. "That's when you know, hey, this is the real deal."

Donald's success over the years is proven in his sheer numbers, as he has amassed 59.5 sacks and 97 tackles for a loss in five seasons. He has achieved double-digit sacks in three seasons and was named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in 2017, an award he will likely win again for 2018.

"He's just a dynamic player, great motor, never blocked," Scarnecchia said. "What I mean by never blocked, you may get him, but he ain't going to stop or he's not going to let you knock him to the ground. He's going to keep fighting every down and he's just a great finisher."

What further impresses the Patriots' offensive line coach is how Donald can be a game wrecker from an interior defensive line position.

"You get 20.5 sacks and that's not easy, especially in there," Scarnecchia said. "It's not easy. He's just unique, he's got great skill and he's got a great motor. Bless his heart, man. He's good."

The task at hand


The Patriots' offense knew well in advance what awaited them in Super Bowl LIII, and had two weeks of practice to prepare for the challenge.

While the Rams' defense has 10 other players, each capable of being a playmaker in their own right, Donald remains the star among stars.

The task of slowing him down falls squarely on a group that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady called "the heart and soul of the offense."

Sure, Brady is tough to corral in the pocket, as evidenced by the Patriots signal-caller being sacked just 21 times on the season and he has one of the quickest releases in the entire league.

But for the Patriots to have success on offense, they know the primary mission is to always know where Donald is on every play and attempt to limit his disruptive nature.

"Every game communication is really important between all the offensive line and the quarterback," Thuney said. "Everybody on the same page, so it's going to take concentration and an effort to communicate."

Andrews agreed.

"We're a good unit in there, played a lot of football together," Andrews said. "It will be a big challenge and we're going to have our hands full."