A strong argument can be made that Aaron Donald is the best defensive player in football. The Rams DT was the 2015 Defensive Player of the Year, after all, and in 2016, his numbers remain stout: In addition to notching six sacks and two forced fumbles this season, he has earned 25 QB hits and 15 tackles for loss – both league-highs, per NFL Game States and Information.
"Coming out of Pittsburgh you saw the speed and quickness that he played with," head coach Dan Quinn said. "He plays really strong and really violent. He's not 320 pounds, but he has real strength especially in his upper body where he can get his hands on you, he can throw, change gaps quickly and he's got very good initial quickness. It's not surprising to see him sometimes line up as an end, and he can do that as well based on the speed that he has. I'd say it's a combination of the quickness and power that he plays with."
Because Donald has the speed and strength to line up at various spots, multiple offensive linemen will need to worry about him on Sunday afternoon. One of those players is guard Andy Levitre, who compared the two-time Pro Bowler to Buccaneers star and familiar foe Gerald McCoy.
"Him and McCoy have a similar get-off," Levitre said. "They're quick off the ball. He just gets in the backfield a lot. He's good at timing off the count, getting off the ball. He's got a good first couple steps. He's got some power to him, too. He can toss guys around, too, hit them with his hands. He's got a lot of good tools to use."
Another Falcon who will be tasked with blocking Donald is Alex Mack. The veteran center has brought stability to Atlanta's offensive line in 2016, and as the leader up front, his pre-snap adjustments could go a long way towards neutralizing LA's inside push.
Through 12 games, Mack has given up just two sacks and three quarterback hits, according to Pro Football Focus.
"You know, I'm just really impressed (with Mack)," Rams head coach Jeff Fisher told AtlantaFalcons.com Wednesday. "We're early in the preparation week, but just really impressed with his quickness, his strength, his leverage, the ability to get down to the second level, his ability to help the guards.
"It's really the first time I've really studied him in a few years, and he's got some really good players lined up next to him as well. I'm really impressed with how the offensive line is playing."
Donald has been playing some of his best football of late. In the last five weeks, he's recorded 26 pressures, 11 tackles, 10 stops against the run and three sacks. His pressure and stop totals are first and second among DTs in that span, respectively.
While the Falcons understand Donald will present a tough challenge, they haven't altered their routine to get ready for a talented opponent. Instead, the focus, as always, remains on what Atlanta can control.
"You have to prepare your best game. It really comes down to how we do, the technique we play with," Levitre said. "So, I give him a lot of credit – he's a great player, don't get me wrong – but I think it's going to come down to how well we play."