Lions plotting to contain Rams' sack-master Donald

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Allen Park — A lot of things went right on offense for the Lions after Jim Bob Cooter took over as offensive coordinator late last October. Containing Aaron Donald, however, was one of the things that went terribly, terribly wrong.

Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is sacked by former teammate Nick Fairley as well as Aaron Donald during  a game last season in St. Louis.

Donald  had a career game last Dec. 13, when the Rams handed the Lions one of their three losses over the final nine games of the season.

He's back this weekend at Ford Field, as Cooter has been a busy man trying to figure out what went wrong, and how to make it right.

"A week's worth of studying him, so you feel confident," Cooter said. "You know of know what kind of player you're going up against. You feel confident that what you've got to face.

"Some of our players that have played against him kind of know what he's got, what his favorite moves are, what he does.

"But really talented player. We're going to know where he's at every snap, for sure."

Odds are, where he's at will be in Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford's face, at least much of Sunday's game (1 p.m., Fox/WJR).

Stafford thrives in Lions’ Calvin-less offense

Donald sacked Stafford three times in the Rams' 21-14 victory last December in St. Louis, the Rams' final season there before moving to Los Angeles this year.

That was a career-high in sacks for Donald, the defensive tackle out of Pittsburgh. He has 22 career sacks in 37 games, including two this season.

"He's relentless," Stafford said. "Just plays with a great motor. Obviously has great physical tools, great balance inside.

"Just a disruptive player, and that's kind of how they want to play upfront."

The Rams are depleted on the defensive line, with three starters battling injuries — ends Robert Quinn (shoulder) William Hayes (ankle), and tackle Michael Brockers (hip).

The Rams don't practice on Thursdays, but all three were estimated by the team to have missed practice if they held one.

That's making life tough on Donald, who actually is starting to see not just double-teams, but triple-teams. That could continue this weekend. It's quite the sign of respect, not that Donald would mind if the Lions respected him just a little bit less.

"Yes, tell them I'm just a guy," Donald said, laughing, during a conference call with Detroit reporters this week. "They don't have to worry about me, man. Tell them, leave me alone. Please."

Fat chance.

Stafford already has been sacked 14 times through five games, a little above the pace from last year, when he was sacked 44 times during the regular season.

So Donald will smell blood, to be sure. And that'll have nothing to do with the narrative Lions fans still want to talk about — how the team, stunningly, passed on Donald in the 2014 draft and instead drafted a tight end who's produced mixed returns, when healthy, in Eric Ebron.

Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald has 22 career sacks in 37 games, including two this season.

"Teams need what they need," said Donald, who never had a pre-draft visit with the Lions, but did have discussions at that year's Senior Bowl.

Said Rams coach Jeff Fisher: "There were a number of teams that passed on Aaron, and we absolutely loved it."

The Lions took Ebron at No. 10, out of North Carolina.

Three picks later, the Rams pounced on Donald, a 6-foot-1, 285-pounder, who was a favorite target among Lions fans, if not then-general manager Martin Mayhew, even though the consensus was Detroit was poised to lose Ndamukong Suh the following offseason.

Donald, 25, played all 16 games as a rookie, starting 12, and had nine sacks. He then started all 16 games last year, with 11 sacks — more than a fourth of those coming in one game against Detroit. Interestingly, he doesn't even believe that was his best career performance.

"Not at all. Not even close," Donald said. "I've got my opinions on games I played that I feel like are my best games, but it's the past. It's old games. It's a new season, so I've got to make a couple games this year my best game year, and I haven't done that yet. I'm still working on it."

That "gulp" you might've just heard, that might've been the Lions' offensive line, which has seen enough film this week to know  what Donald is capable of doing.

A two-time Pro Bowler, Donald finished runner-up to Houston's J.J. Watt last season. With Watt battling injury this season, the door is open for Donald to win it.

Another dominating performance against the Lions could go a long way in that regard, not that an individual award is his focus, nor is the Lions' willingness to pass on him two drafts ago.

Not that the Lions — or at least their fans — have let go of that April night two years ago quite so easily.

"Sure, we knew he was a great player," Lions coach Jim Caldwell said, when asked if team brass knew just how good he was when they went searching for a first-round pick in 2014. "You asked the same question a year ago or whatever it was, we played them last year.

"Nevertheless, my answer is still the same. He's an outstanding player, great player, and he's proven to be such."