Film Breakdown: Aaron Donald vs Seattle Seahawks

I tweeted last night during the Seahawks-Rams game that I think Aaron Donald is the best defensive linemen I’ve ever watched. Obviously, I wasn’t around to watch a lot of the NFL’s greatest defensive linemen ever, Reggie White, Charles Haley, Bruce Smith, and many others.

Nonetheless, I have watched the greatness of all time talents like Jared Allen, Michael Strahan, Jason Taylor, Dwight Freeney and more. Of all the great defensive linemen/pass rushers I’ve watched, Aaron Donald has to be the best I’ve seen. Not only because he single handedly disrupts every single opponent’s offensive gameplan, but he does it in ways no other defense lineman has done it maybe ever.

If you look at Aaron Donald’s measurables, he comes in at 9th percentile, his weight is only 6th percentile, and his arm length is just 26th percentile. Although this model explains why he theoretically shouldn’t be so successful according to stature, it also shows why he is so successful despite it. His 10-yard split, 40-yard dash, broad jump, and 3-cone measurements all grade at least 96th percentile or better among defensive tackles. Translation, he’s explosive. Let’s look at a few plays of his from the game against Seattle, a game in which he had zero sacks, but still did a lot to disrupt the offense.

On the first drive, AD swims inside and then uses great hand placement and upper body strength to separate from the guard that is blocking him. As soon as the separation happens, he explodes towards the quarterback, gets his hands in his face, and lays a hit on him.

This time, he is lined up at the defensive end position. He doesn’t make the stop on this play, probably because he was surprised to get into the backfield so fast, but this play really highlights how explosive he is as a player. His first step is as good as any, and the left tackle that was supposed to block him hardly even gets a hand on him.

The very next play, Donald completely ruins a play that is designed to neutralize him. The very idea of the runningback screen is for the offensive line to invite overly-eager defensive linemen to the quarterback by letting them rush quickly forward, just so that the quarterback can throw the ball to the runningback in space, where the offensive linemen are waiting to block downfield. On this particular screen concept, the right guard is supposed to attempt to block AD to sell that it’s a swing pass to the receiver, only to release and block for the screen. Unfortunately for him, Donald is so fast he can’t even get hands on him. By the time Russell Wilson is turning to throw the screen Donald is already in his face.

Aaron Donald is now lined up with an outside shade of the right tackle. On this snap, he comes dead down the middle of the right tackle and takes his inside arm and looks like he may be attempting what’s called a “hump move”. In theory, his inside arm would bring enough force to knock the tackle off balance and fall, giving the pass rusher a clear lane to the quarterback. The tackle doesn’t fall in this case, but he does get shoved straight back into the quarterbacks face, forcing him to throw early to the flat.

This is another play designed to take Donald out of the play. My all-22 isn’t working, but I believe they are attempting to “trap” Aaron Donald by letting him get quickly upfield and eventually get blocked by a guard pulling from the opposite side so that the runningback can run by. Donald recognizes that the offensive line intentionally let him through, and somehow dips underneath the guard that is pulling to block him and makes the tackle in the backfield.

Using his insanely fast first step, Donald beats a double team for a pressure here. When Donald takes two interior linemen outside, Russell Wilson has to step up in the pocket. With Donald outside forcing Wilson to move forward, Clay Matthews wraps back inside resulting in a sack.