On the Monday Morning NFL Podcast, Andy Benoit and Gary Gramling discuss defensive linemen across the NFL, what makes the great ones great, the value of being a stout run defender, and why Aaron Donald might be even better in 2019. Plus, they unveil their ranking of the top 10 defensive linemen in the NFL heading into the 2019 season. Listen and subscribe to The MMQB Monday Morning NFL Podcast here. The following transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
GARY: Let's talk about Aaron Donald. How would you game-plan against him? What would you do to contain him?
ANDY: I think you start with a simple premise: We're not going to let him ruin the game. And I've had people around the NFL tell me you have to understand where you're going with that premise. He's going to make three or four plays against you, and so it's a damage-control situation. He might get a sack but let's not let it be a sack-fumble. He might get a tackle for loss but let's not let's not have that create a second-and-17, let’s have it create a second-and-12. He is that good of a player, and very few guys—Von Miller is probably like that, J.J. Watt is like that, Khalil Mack is like that. You game-plan and say: We're going to not let him ruin the game, rather than, We're going to take him out of the game
ANDY: So you minimize the damage. It's a question of, How do we do it? We've talked it before—it's hard to double-team a defensive tackle. You can slide your protection his way but it's hard to truly double-team. You don't chip-block him like you do a defensive end. You can't leave a tight end in to block, these guys are playing inside. That's why I've been saying it's more important to have a good guard than a good tackle in today's NFL, because you can't help against the defensive tackle. One thing teams were doing was leaving their running back in and just having him be a second line of defense against these guys. I don't like that approach because I think that crowds your backfield too much, it creates more pressure on the quarterback. The Cardinals did it last year and instead of Aaron Donald getting home it was basically David Johnson getting in Josh Rosen's way when he's trying to throw.
GARY: Yeah, if the Cardinals did it last year maybe it’s not a great idea.
ANDY: But you know, it might be the best of a bunch of bad ideas.
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ANDY: If we both agree we don't like leaving the running back in, OK, well, then what are we going to do? That’s assuming that we have an average guard and maybe a slightly above-average center or tackle.
GARY: I feel like teams used to be able to catch him going up field a little too much at times.
ANDY: He does penetrate himself out of the play at times. And the Rams would probably tell you that’s the cost of doing business with Aaron Donald—they'll live with that. The Rams run defense a couple of years ago was ranked, I think, 31st in the league in terms of yards per carry, and that was part of it. Donald has had a reputation at times in his career as not being the most gap-sound defender, not always being the most disciplined defender. When you have a guy as talented as him, usually you say, O.K., we'll let you do it that way but now we need to have a smart linebacker behind you, someone who can read off of that and adjust his assignments if you're going to change your gap assignments. The Rams have not had those kind of linebackers, or they're not like the Texans, who have had those guys that can play off J.J. Watt. He's not a liability in run defense, but he can be an erratic run defender. So I'm with you on that.
ANDY: I've also learned that you're not allowed to even acknowledge that on Twitter because if Aaron Donald is anything less than a god of football you don't know what you're talking about. But I thought it was strange that he was the almost unanimous Defensive Player of the Year two years ago as a defensive tackle on a defense that ranked almost last against the run. I betcha that has never happened before.
GARY: And you think you think they can give Donald a little more help schematically going forward.
ANDY: I think that's unequivocally, absolutely, irrefutably true. It’s what is so astounding about Aaron Donald. And it was funny, because Twitter jumped all over me for saying that, too. But he puts up these huge numbers and he doesn't really get a lot of help from the scheme. The Rams do not give him much help schematically, not by the standard of what the Texans do for Watt, or the Eagles even, for Fletcher Cox. And remember, the Eagles have a lot of good players around Fletcher Cox. The Rams do not. Michael Brockers is a very good player but he's not a pass-rushing threat. Ndamukong Suh last year was a good player, but not an every-down pass-rushing threat. Dante Fowler maybe changes that this year, we'll see. But Donald is the guy and they don't do a lot of five-down fronts in Los Angeles. It's a lot of straight four-down fronts; those fronts at times can be predictable based on the situation. Wade Phillips likes to play an Under front, meaning his 3-technique is away from the tight end. Now, an Under front, that in and of itself can be a way to help your 3-tech because if he's away from the tight end he's harder to double-team. But that doesn't mean he's impossible to double-team, and with no other weapons around Donald the protection always finds its way to him, which is the other thing that stands out to me watching the Rams on film: They don't do a lot of designer pass rush concepts. They don't do a lot of stunts and twists. And that's really bizarre because they know at all times where the protection is going—it's going to Aaron Donald. Any team that knows where the protections is going ought to be able to exploit that schematically.
ANDY: My guess, Gary, is that the Rams are going to look into doing a lot more of that in 2019, because why wouldn't you? Why wouldn't you do everything in your power to maximize the strength that you have with Aaron Donald, understanding that the trickle-down effect of that is going to make the jobs of everyone else around him easier as well.
THE MMQB PODCAST TOP 10 DEFENSIVE LINEMEN FOR 2019
“Others receiving votes” is included if you listen to the show, along with more defensive line discussions including the value of a great run defender, the greatness of Aaron Donald and the value of Grady Jarrett. Position ranking voting is AP Poll-style among three panelists, with Andy’s votes counting double (note: edge defenders—including J.J. Watt, Calais Campbell and Michael Bennett—were on a separate show):
1. Aaron Donald, L.A. Rams, 80 points (3 first-place votes)
2. Fletcher Cox, Philadelphia, 76
3. Akiem Hicks, Chicago, 71
4. Chris Jones, Kansas City, 69
5. Grady Jarrett, Atlanta, 62
6. Geno Atkins, Cincinnati, 57
7. Cameron Heyward, Pittsburgh, 50
(tie)8. DeForest Buckner, San Francisco, 49
(tie)8. Kenny Clark, Green Bay, 49
10. Jurrell Casey, Tennessee, 42
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