LOS ANGELES — Aaron Donald has been one of the NFL’s best players and perhaps its best defensive player for a long time now.
(Go ahead, you argue with him if you disagree.)
“He had already asserted and established himself as one of the best players in this league five years ago when I first got here,” Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay said this week. “And all he’s done is just get better, and he’s consistently produced.
“And I think when you know people are keying in on you and they’re going to have game plans and you find ways to produce, that’s greatness. The way he goes about building his teammates up, bringing them with him, that’s the greatness in Aaron Donald.”
Donald and his seven All-Pro selections, three Defensive Player of the Year awards, All Decade Team distinction and those 98 sacks are in one corner as we set the chess pieces for Super Bowl LVI.
And in the other corner, the Cincinnati Bengals have, well, problems.
…Even when it’s Donald versus one, two, or perhaps three Bengals offensive linemen.
That’s basically the matchup that glows in neon as the most lopsided of this Super Bowl. That’s the one that could determine the difference between Cincinnati coming out of this game feeling like Cinderella.
Or feeling crushed by a cinderblock.
Everyone sees it. Everyone understands it. Except those stubborn Bengals.
“That’s a nice story for you guys and the fans to worry about,” Bengals offensive line coach Frank Pollack said Tuesday. “Not for us.”
Love it, a truck driving headlong at a train is not aware the train is bigger.
Anyway, Donald comes to Sunday’s game fully aware of the circumstances. Teams blocking him with multiple players to keep him from wrecking their plans is nothing new to him.
So Donald has a plan.
“It depends how they protect,” he said. “Hopefully, I can still get the edge when they got a double team when they slide the protection to me. If they they don’t, you work different patterns and things like that. But it also helps with the guys I got around me, so that’s how you eliminate that.”
Donald doesn’t agree he represents the biggest matchup problem for the Bengals on Sunday. What’s the point of publicly admitting that?
“They’re a group that’s playing in the Super Bowl, so you got to respect that,” Donald said. “They’re playing there for a reason. We’re going to just go out there and I trust the players we got against the players they got, and we’re going to do what we got to do and try to find a way to win a game. That’s what it comes down to, play hard for four quarters and try to dominate.”
For the casual fans, let’s recap why this feels somewhat unfair. The Bengals were 30th in pass-block win rate in the NFL, according to NFL Next Gen stats. There are only 32 teams in the league.
The Bengals allowed nine sacks in the divisional round playoff game against Tennessee. The right side of the offensive line is trying hard to plug gaps, but it’s been a problem.
Right tackle Isaiah Prince, a 2019 sixth-round pick of the Miami Dolphins who was cut, is a reserve player forced to start because of injuries. Right guard Hakeem Adeniji was a 2020 sixth round pick. He and rookie second-round pick Jackson Carman split time in the AFC Championship Game against Kansas City and not because things were going great.
So all of that … no bueno.
“I’ve got a ton of confidence in our guys up front,” Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan fibbed, or rather, said. “They’re battle-tested. They’ve played in tough games. They’ve managed. They’ve made mistakes. They’ve given up sacks. They just keep coming back and fighting. That’s all you can ask for at this point in the year.”
Donald is asking his teammates to win this championship for themselves, obviously. But also for him.
“I feel like it would be a goal that I’ve been chasing, wanting to accomplish, and I’d be able to check that off and feel like there wasn’t anything in this league that I wanted to accomplish that I didn’t accomplish,” Donald said. “It would mean a lot.”
Cool, so the train is not only bigger, stronger, and faster than the truck, but also motivated.
“When you have something bigger than yourself to play for and motivation that drives you, what a powerful thing that is,” McVay said.
Cinderella, meet cinderblock.
Follow on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero