Take notice: Rams have best D-line in NFL, and a real chance this year

The Rams, led by Aaron Donald and their defensive line, have a real shot at success this year. Will the St. Louis fans, wary of a potential move to L.A., take notice? 
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ST. LOUIS—It’s one game into the second season of Aaron Donald’s NFL career, and his teammates, a little high on the dizzying fumes of winning and finishing and finally some affirmation, are throwing around some big words. He’s the best defensive tackle in football, Chris Long says of his 24-year-old linemate. “The Hall of Fame is calling his name,” Robert Quinn pronounces. No one can help but positively freaking beam when they say his name. No. 99, he has that effect. “I like him on my team,” Quinn continues, and it’s the understatement of the day.

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Donald, meanwhile, is quiet. He speaks quickly and jerkily, as if the faster he spits it out, the faster he can stop. But warm him up, take him back into a play, and he lets loose. Consider the Seahawks’ first drive of the game, for instance, where they came up to fourth down and one on the Rams’ 31-yard line. Soundly in field goal range, they ran the ball and landed two yards. And then on the next play, Donald positively walloped Russell Wilson, a sack which, combined with a five-yard penalty, pushed Seattle out of field goal range. “William Hayes did a great job rushing, actually got a hand on him, but he broke, and he slowed it down for me,” Donald recalls. “It’s a unit. We work together. One guy misses, and another guy’s going to clean it up.”

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Or consider the final play of the game, another fourth-and-one, this time at the Rams 42-yard line in overtime. “I was thinking run,” Donald says. (He likely watched the Super Bowl.) “I was sure. He’s got Lynch back there. You know they’re going to give it to him.”

“Brock got him, stopped, slowed him down, and I just jumped on him.”

And in so many words, there is the game, the Rams’ 34-31 victory over the reigning NFC champions. Yes, there was an encouraging dose of Nick Foles at quarterback, a pinch of Seahawks magic, several outbursts of Lynch, some Jimmy Graham and a bit of Tavon Austin. But step back, and the Rams won because of what they do best: defensive line play – and Donald.

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Sure, the score doesn’t necessarily scream defensive battle, but the Seahawks logged 14 of their 31 points on defense and special teams, with a 57-yard punt return and an eight-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown. Eliminate those plays, and we’re left with field goal, field goal, touchdown, field goal—and a sense that maybe these Rams have put it all together behind the unit in which they’ve spent the past four years investing.

Donald was the player they were never supposed to be able to pick. By 2014, St. Louis’s defensive line was stacked, and it had an entire offense to bolster in the draft. But with an extra first-round pick courtesy of the Redskins’ burning desire to pick a quarterback they’d bench four seasons in, St. Louis landed Donald, who slipped to no. 13 with concerns that he might be undersized. (If Lynch happened to be the kind of player who was ever inclined to speak, I’d love to pick his brain as to whether Donald is too small to be a viable tackle.)

“This is a good football player,” Rams general manager Les Snead told me in June of his rationale with Donald. “Our DL’s deep. But we’ve always had a big-picture philosophy in the building, especially for first-rounders. Yes, we’re well aware of our team needs, but maybe in the first round you take what you think the best player is.”

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And that’s exactly what Donald was. Last season, he logged nine sacks, one pass defensed and two forced fumbles—while starting only 12 games. In the final 11 contests of the season, he had eight sacks and 25 QB hurries, paving the way for his recognition as the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year. If teams had doubted Donald in May, by December they knew: Be afraid.

Which makes this win even sweeter. With the offseason addition of tackle Nick Fairley and Donald’s emergence, any team that didn’t think the Rams were legitimate a year ago has likely changed its tune. Long, Quinn, Brockers, Donald, Fairley—first-round pick, first-round pick, first-round...you get the idea. The team that has looked great on paper for years is finally living up to its billing, and Long relishes the fact that teams now expect, and gird themselves for, his team’s defensive line. “We weren’t surprised that we beat them,” the veteran end says. “The guys in this locker room expected to win that game. Maybe in years past—but the difference this year is we didn’t sneak up on them. They knew who we were, and we won anyways.”

On the afternoon, the Rams combined for six sacks—two each by Quinn and Donald, one by Lamarcus Joyner and one by Eugene Sims. They hit Wilson a combined nine times, had seven tackles for loss and four passes defensed, and no player took credit. As he walked out of the locker room, defensive line coach Mike Waufle hollered at Brockers, who was about to speak to the media: “Tell them (you) won the game for the team.” Brockers laughed. That’s just not how these Rams work. He’ll own up to a mistake in the B-gap, which Long will jokingly chide him for and frankly say he never noticed. Donald will credit Brockers for the dirty work, Hayes for a grab, Long for setting up the game’s big plays. The Rams line isn’t so much a front four as it is a front one, this amorphous unit of rotation, rotation, thwap, and that’s why it works so well.

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There was a certain pall of irony over the day, though. On Sunday, the Edward Jones Dome rocked as Donald and Brockers stuffed Lynch, louder than its only partially filled seats (many of which were occupied by visiting 12s) would have suggested. Fans screamed as they left the building, five, 10, 15 minutes after the final play, and not a player escaped being asked about the magnitude of the win, the biggest of Jeff Fisher’s tenure in St. Louis. The Rams are maybe actually good, but they also maybe probably have one foot out the door to Los Angeles. And instead of showing up in droves to stick it to the NFL and owner Stan Kroenke, St. Louis’s fans seem cautious, hurt by the flirtation with palm trees and celebrity. Meanwhile, they’re missing the best product their team has fielded since the Kurt Warner era. They’re missing two of the best young pass rushers in football, and soon they’ll be missing one of the game’s most promising running backs. They’re missing the chance for Long, the no. 2 pick in 2008, to finally see the playoffs. They’re missing the first healthy and talented quarterback their team has fielded in a decade.

Which is why Sunday mattered that little bit more. Another game like this one, and another, and another, and maybe St. Louis will take notice. Maybe not. But regardless, this defensive line will keep humming and thumping and smothering. It’s the best in the game, and Donald may just be the game’s top defensive player. Give him a year or two. Or even a handful of months. And give these Rams a chance.