Rams' 'dynamic' Aaron Donald the focus of Lions' protection plans
Allen Park — Much of the attention heading into Sunday’s Lions-Rams matchup has revolved around the quarterbacks and former No. 1 overall picks — Matthew Stafford and Jared Goff — facing their former teams.
For Lions offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn, his focus has been on another player: defensive lineman Aaron Donald.
“Our protection system is going to have to be very sound this week and we cannot let him wreck the game because he can wreck the game,” Lynn said Thursday.
Donald, a six-time All-Pro who has been named the NFL’s defensive player of the year three of the past four seasons, is a 6-foot-1, 280-pound mound of destruction. And entering his eighth year in the league, his game hasn’t dropped off and he hasn’t lost a step.
He’s still a menacing force and a nightmare for opposing linemen to keep out of the backfield, as evidenced by his nine quarterback hits, five tackles for loss and 3½ sacks.
For the Lions, the plan is simple. Double-team him and get four hands on him as much as possible. Yet, that’s easier said than done and, at times, not effective enough.
“He’s just dynamic. He’s strong, he’s fast, he’s quick, he’s explosive, he jumps around to make moves,” Lynn said. “He does some of the things that are very unsound for a defensive lineman, but he’ll make plays doing it. So, he catches you off-guard, an element of surprise, with some of his stuff.”
Like his technique, which could be considered unorthodox at times, and the fact that the Rams move him all over in pass-rush situations. Whenever he lines up on the inside, he’ll match up against center Evan Brown, who will be making his third career start in place of Frank Ragnow.
Compared to a couple of weeks ago, Brown said he feels like he’s settled down and has taken away a couple of things from each of the past two starts that have helped him improve. Facing someone of Donald’s caliber, Brown said it all boils down to honing and trusting his technique.
"(He has) an ability to move in different ways than typical defensive linemen. He's not overly oversized in anything but he's got great speed, just great everything about him,” Brown said. “And then he's relentless. He doesn't give up on a rush. He's going to come every play, give it to you and come play back the next play.”
Brown admitted he was nervous heading into his first start at Minnesota. But against the Rams, he’s eager to show what he can do against Donald, whom he called the best player in the league.
“You see it's a great defensive front and with that is going to come a great challenge,” Brown said. “If you're not playing the game to go out and see how you compete against the best, then what's the point?"
Through the first five weeks of the season, rookie running back Jermar Jefferson found himself in the same position each game day — a healthy scratch.
With D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams carrying the backfield load and no touches trickling down, position coach Duce Staley noted last month Jefferson’s path to playing time would come through special teams.
After weeks of working in that area, the seventh-round pick was activated for the first time last weekend against the Cincinnati Bengals, seeing action with nine total snaps on the punt and kick return units.
According to coordinator Dave Fipp, Jefferson, like other offensive standouts coming from college, didn’t have much special teams experience coming in and faced a “huge learning curve.”
“It's hard for some of these guys,” Fipp said. “There's just so much to learn. … I've had players who were really good special teams players in college, they come to the NFL and play special teams, and those guys said it took them like two to three years to get to where they felt like they had everything wired and were playing at a high level with a lot of confidence.”
Fipp noted from his experience that players who have defensive backgrounds or were two-way players in high school tend to have an easier transition. Still, there are parts of the return game that favor offensive fundamentals, like blocking, and others that favor defensive skill sets, like coverage. The latter is an area Jefferson is still growing in.
“I thought he went out there and he knew what he was supposed to do,” Fipp said. “He competed and there's things he can work on to improve, but I'm happy with his development.”
Tight end T.J. Hockenson (knee), defensive end Nick Williams (knee) and fullback Jason Cabinda (hip) all returned to practice Thursday in a limited fashion after missing Wednesday’s session.
Outside linebacker Trey Flowers (knee) and Swift (groin) were also limited participants for the second straight day.