Gerald McCoy doesn’t need to game plan for Aaron Donald, but the Bucs three-time All-Pro defensive tackle likes what he sees.
“I love watching him,” McCoy said from in front of his locker Tuesday. “I’m a fan of football, I say that all the time, and any defensive lineman that can play the game I love to watch.”
Donald burst onto the NFL scene last year when his nine sacks trailed only the 10 racked up by Buffalo’s Marcell Dareus for the league lead at defensive tackle. That effort helped Donald earn a trip to the Pro Bowl and NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year awards from the Associated Press and Pro Football Writers of America.
He hasn’t taken his foot off the gas since.
Donald squashed thoughts of a sophomore slump by beginning the 2015 campaign with two sacks of Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson and is now fifth in the NFL with 11, the most of any interior lineman.
“He’s so explosive,” McCoy said of Donald. “The thing about him is he’s a small guy which helps. It’s hard to get underneath his pads. He’s a freak athlete. If you go back to his combine numbers – he had exceptional numbers – but not only that, he can play the game.”
At 6-foot-1, 285 pounds, Donald is considered slightly undersized for a professional defensive tackle by about 10-20 pounds. That hasn’t seemed to matter much for the former Pitt Panther; so much so that he’s drawing comparisons from Bucs evaluators to another massively disruptive defensive force.
“We have an advanced scout that scouts teams a couple weeks in advance and they told me that he was on the same level as J.J. Watt,” Bucs offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said Tuesday. “I thought to myself, ‘Wow, that’s hard to believe.’ When it came my time to watch the tape I said, ‘Wow, he’s on the same level as J.J. Watt.’
“This guy’s having a fantastic year. Definitely a game-wrecker for this game.”
One of the Bucs set to get his first up-close-and-personal look at Donald is center Joe Hawley. The young Ram experienced a pair of first-ever professional moments during last year’s 19-17 Week 2 win in Tampa Bay – a sack and a victory – but Hawley was still in Atlanta at that time.
“He’s definitely one of the top two or three, if not the best, D-tackle in the league,” Hawley said. “He’s got it all, he’s the whole package. He’s quick, strong, he can adjust his pass-rush move in the middle of a rush; he’s very good. He’s one of the best players on their defense so we’ve got to control what he does, limit the plays he can make. He’s going to make some plays but we’ve just got to know where he’s at in the defense the whole time.”
Focusing on Donald has been made a little easier for Rams opponents this season because of the injury bug. Defensive end Robert Quinn has been out with a back injury for the past six games and outside linebacker Alec Ogletree was lost for the season in Week 4.
Thought of heading into the season as a legitimate contender to Seattle in the NFC West, St. Louis’ season got off the tracks with a five-game skid that ended last weekend at home against Detroit. The Rams’ banged-up defense enters Thursday ranked 12th in the NFL in scoring (20.8) and surrendered an average of 24.3 over the past six, including 27 or more three times.
“I think even though the last six weeks were overshadowed by the losing streak, he has really made a difference up front,” Rams head coach Jeff Fisher said of Donald during his Tuesday afternoon conference call with Tampa Bay media members. “He’s very difficult to block and I imagine it’s going to be a tough time on a short week to get him blocked.”
Even with the injuries and underwhelming team stats, Bucs offensive linemen are preparing for a battle nonetheless.
“It’s a challenge,” Hawley said. “It kind of puts to the test what you can do – challenges you in the pass protection and run game. But you go up against a team like that and you take care of business, it feels a little bit better. But they’ve definitely got a good group and good depth. They can rotate guys in that are just as good as the guys in there starting. So it’s going to be a big challenge.”