Offensive highlights litter every catalog of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history, and even fewer of those great plays involve lumbering defensive linemen. A two-yard loss isn’t as exciting as a 25-yard scoring throw or a running back trampling an entire defense. But when the story of Super Bowl LVI is retold, Matt Stafford’s back-shoulder throw to Cooper Kupp shouldn’t overshadow Aaron Donald shredding the Bengals on consecutive plays in the final two minutes.
With a title in jeopardy of slipping away from Los Angeles as the Bengals faced a key fourth-down conversion, there was an anticipation in the air that a scintillating Donald pressure was coming. On third and 1, Donald stopped tailback Samaje Perine in his tracks, wielding a Herculean arm tackle to keep the 250-pounder from bowling forward for an extra yard.
Donald demonstrated why his pass rush win rate was 20 percent higher than the NFL’s second-best defensive tackle on the ensuing play.
Donald’s devastating swim move got the jump on left guard Quinton Spain and dizzied the left guard. Spain was helpless to Donald teleporting into the backfield and colliding with Burrow in only 2.2 seconds. Donald’s sudden moves forced the Bengals’ quarterback to flick a hot potato prayer that died in the air and fell incomplete.
Together, his last two downs of the season were a clutch, season-ending defensive sequence showcasing Donald’s capabilities. There’s a famous 4-minute long take in 2003’s Korean action thriller Oldboy, in which the protagonist Oh Dae-Su singlehandedly battles his way through a corridor packed with over a dozen henchmen. The brutal scene encapsulates Donald’s endless pursuit this season.
The numbers contextualizing dominance at other positions are easily digestible, and Donald’s feats deserve the same respect. On Sunday, ESPN Analytics found that Donald generated a team-high seven pressures and two sacks on 40 pass rushes, which calculates to a team-high 17.5 percent pressure rate. Anytime Burrow sneezed, the Rams were in his grill tighter than an N95.
It tracks, given how Donald’s seventh consecutive All-Pro season has gone. His reign of terror was the scene-chewing stuff quarterback nightmares are made of. He had every other NFC West quarterback searching for exit routes, ended postseasons, and etched his team into history books.
It was the second consecutive season that an interior pass rusher ended Burrow’s season. Donald proved that drafting Penei Sewell last May wouldn’t have been enough to seal their leaky, incontinent offensive line.
Throughout the Rams title chase, the Donald threat matrix was at DEFCON 1. Kyler Murray, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, and Jimmy Garappollo felt his wrath. He mushed mobile quarterbacks Russell Wilson and Kyler Murray into kid’s meals. In Week 5, Russell Wilson banged his finger on Aaron Donald’s helmet. By the time he returned to the Seahawks lineup in November, the Seahawks had tumbled out of playoff contention.
Donald swallowed Arizona’s escape artist 3.5 times and forced him to slip outside the pocket on countless plays prematurely. Getting rag-dolled by Donald and Co. contributed to Murray not wanting to return to the Cardinals at all.
Donald penetrating the backfield and rolling Burrow up like a cigar was a déjà vu moment. Two weeks ago, Donald capped Garappollo’s tenure by chasing him down and forcing the frightened Niners quarterback to attempt a hasty shovel pass, which was promptly picked off.
In less than a decade, Donald has earned a place in the pantheon of epochal Super Bowl-winning defensive game changers such as Lawrence Taylor and Reggie White.
Donald’s earned AP Defensive Player of the Year three times in the last five seasons. In that span, he has created 140 more pressures of opposing QBs than the next closest lineman, Cameron Jordan.
He knocked over double teams at the same rate his peers on the edge beat solo blockers. On 64 percent of his pass rushes, Donald was double-teamed, and he accumulated 12.5 sacks. TJ Watt, the reigning MVP was only double-teamed on a fifth of his rushes.
Before the Super Bowl, Harrison reported that Donald would consider retirement if the Rams won the Super Bowl. It remains to be seen if Rodney Harrison’s sources are as dependable as Adam Schefter’s, but when confronted with questions about his future, Donald avoided giving a direct answer.
“I’m just in the moment right now. I’m going to enjoy this with my teammates [and] my family,” Donald said. “I’m just going to be in the moment and enjoy this today — a couple of days, how about that? It’s a blessing.”
He also contemplated everything it took for him to reach the zenith of his career.
“I surpassed anything I ever thought I could do,” Donald said after the Rams’ Super Bowl victory. “I would have never thought in a million years that I would be sitting here right now with the success I had in a short amount of time in the league, a world champion in this league in my eighth year.”
Aside from his individual numbers, his presence opens it up for his edge rushers and they flourish in more advantageous blocking situations.
If this is truly the end for Donald, there will be no repeats without him. Donald’s gravitational pull and influence can’t be replicated.