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Sliding Protection: How Bengals Can Attempt To Slow Down Rams Star Aaron Donald

Will Cincinnati slow down Aaron Donald in Super Bowl LVI?

Sometimes analysts and coaches make football out to be a game that is more complicated than it truly is. 

A lot of the game can be boiled down into some pretty simple ideas. If the opposing team has a Hall-of-Fame-caliber player, then make sure you don’t leave them one-on-one. 

Super Bowl LVI encompasses this theme quite well. 

The Rams have one of the greatest defensive players of all time: Aaron Donald. There is no stopping a player like Donald, teams can hope to slow him down. 

Let’s dive into Donald's tape and look at a few ways the Bengals can contain the future Hall of Famer.

Aaron Donald

Donald is a 280-pound defensive tackle with dynamite in his hands, all while possessing the movement ability of a wide receiver. He has a strong case to be considered the greatest defensive player of all time. Here is a list of accolades he has achieved in his 8-year career: four time AP Defensive Player of the Year, seven time First-Team All-Pro, eight Pro Bowls, Defensive Rookie of the Year, and he was named to the Hall of Fame’s All-2010s team. On top of that, he has nearly 100 sacks in 127 games. This guy is an amazing player. Maybe this chart will help to illustrate his absurd talent better.

Donald is in a different stratosphere compared to every other defensive tackle in the league. Despite a double team rate of nearly 70%, he still leads the league in pass-rush win rate by a country mile. He’s by himself at the top right of this chart and his play sets the curve. 

Here’s another chart that depicts his play against edge rushers:

Donald has the pass-rush win rate of one of the top edge rushers, while having a double team rate higher than any other defensive tackle in the league. He can wreck a game and stifle an offense single-handedly. Donald does most of his damage when teams leave him in one on one situations.

This is exactly what happens when the best player of this generation is left alone against mere mortals. The Bengals cannot afford to make this mistake against Donald. If the Bengals give him one-on-ones, he will destroy their game plan, so they need to find a way to slow him down. In the six games that Donald was held without a sack, the Rams are a measly 2-4. In the other 11 games where he sacked the quarterback, they are 10-1. Sometimes it really is as simple as whether or not the offense can protect against the defense’s best player.

Sliding The Line To Donald

It really is a simple strategy, but it’s exactly what the Bengals need to do in the Super Bowl. Set all of the protections and the offensive line to Donald and make everything else the secondary assignment. When Donald is unaccounted for and left to be blocked one-on-one, he has a three-way go against that lineman. He can go to either side or he can try to bully through him. When the center slides over to help to the inside, he only has one way to win, which is to the outside, away from the help. With this in mind, the guard can actually overset against him and give up the inside, where the center will take him.

The most common front the Bengals will face is a 4-down even front with Donald in a 3-technique. Whether the Rams set Donald to or away from the strength of the formation does not matter. In these situations, the Bengals need to slide the center to Donald and then allow the guard opposite of him to take on the nose tackle by himself.

In all of these clips, Donald is stopped because the offensive line is able to get two and sometimes even three players to take on the future Hall-of-Famer. Sometimes it works like a true double team, where both players are blocking Donald at the same time, while other times it works differently, with the center waiting to take him after he inevitably wins against the guard. Both of these strategies should be effective against Donald as it is extremely difficult for anyone to beat multiple NFL players.

The issue with this strategy is that the Rams know that everyone in the league wants to get a double team on Donald and they are not just going to allow them to do so. One of the ways they will attempt to get Donald a cleaner look is by spreading him out even further in a wide front. A wide front is essentially just a 4-down front with both interior defensive linemen spread out just inside of the offensive tackles. Even against these very spread-out fronts, teams should still slide their center to Donald.

You can clearly see the benefit of sliding the center to Donald on these plays. The guard blocking him should not be afraid of oversetting when they get help from the center in these fronts. Because he is split out so wide, he can win to the outside before the center can slide over to help. By oversetting against Donald, the guard forces him back into the sliding center. This should give the guard enough time to recover and get back into good position. These fronts do an OK job of singling up Donald against a guard, but it’s not the best way that the Rams try to get him one-on-one.

The most effective way the Rams work to get Donald one on one is through overload fronts. An overload front is a front where three of the four defensive linemen will go to one side of the center, while the defense will place the end opposite of the overload in a wide-9 technique. 

The linebacker will also commonly walk down over the unoccupied guard so that the offense has to account for him as well. This works well to get two players one on ones. The 7-technique to the overloaded side will often be one on one with the guard and the wide-9 technique away from the overload will be one on one with the tackle. The Rams will frequently place Donald in both spots.

Despite this, the offensive line should still base their protection scheme around Donald. When he is in the wide-9 technique, the protection can allocate two guys for him, either by chipping him early with a tight end or by sliding the guard over to help the tackle, while a back accounts for the backer. When Donald is in the 7T as part of the overload, the offensive line can still slide the center out to help, while leaving the back in to block the backer. The one thing to watch when Donald is in this spot is for him to run a stunt with the nose tackle. If the offensive line slides too hard to him here, they may get burned by him looping around.

Once again, getting multiple bodies in the way of Donald is effective in slowing him down. There is no stopping Donald over four quarters, but always accounting two guys (preferably offensive linemen) for him in the protection scheme is how to slow him down. As talented as he is, he cannot consistently defeat multiple NFL players.

The drawback with always accounting two players for Donald is that it leaves the other talented Rams pass rushers one on one for the most part. It's an issue of resource allocation. If there are five guys blocking and four rushing, only one defender will get a double team. Same with six blocking and five rushing. 

Despite his age, Von Miller is still a superb pass rusher and Leonard Floyd is very good as well. However, neither of these guys are Donald, so I would think that the Bengals prefer to leave them one on one as opposed to Donald. On plays where the Bengals need to take a shot deep downfield, they can leave a tight end on the line to give one of these two players a chip or run 7-man protections. The Rams rarely bring more than five players on a pass rush, so leaving 7 guys in to protect should allow them to get two double teams.

Donald is going to get pressure this week. The Bengals don’t have the horses to keep him at bay for the entire game. It would certainly help if Joe Burrow continued to work magic in the pocket like he did against the Chiefs so that these pressures don't turn into sacks, but the best way to mitigate his impact is to force him to beat two players on nearly every snap. Against any front, the Bengals need to have two guys account for Donald. If the Bengals can slow down the Rams’ best pass rusher, then they stand a chance at really doing damage through the air. Upsetting LA in the Super Bowl starts up front and there is nothing more important for the Bengals than making sure the Rams’ best player does not take over the game.

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