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Aaron Donald: “It’s win or go home, so you’ve got to leave everything on the field.”

Defensive tackle Aaron Donald was already arguably the best defensive player in the league, having won the 2017 AP Defensive Player of the Year award. But what he’s displayed so far in 2018 has been on another level.

Donald recorded 20.5 sacks in the regular season, setting the single-season franchise record, and the league’s single-season record for an interior lineman. Aside from leading the league in sacks, he also recorded a league-leading 25 tackles for loss and 41 quarterback hits. Only five players had more than Donald’s for forced fumbles. Plus he set a single-season league record by forcing quarterback to lose 183.5 yards on his sacks.

So, Donald is the clear frontrunner to repeat as the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year. What did he do to prepare for the year? And what did he learn after last year’s playoff loss to Atlanta? He discussed that and more in an interview with therams.com last week.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

therams.com: If you could describe the playoffs in one word, what would it be and why?

Aaron Donald: Intense. Everything’s sped up. The game’s a little bit more physical — because it’s win or go home, so you’ve got to leave everything on the field. And everything’s up a notch or two.

therams.com: Do you have to experience that in order to figure that out? As in, did you have to figure it out from going through last year’s playoff experience?

Donald: 100 percent. It’s a whole different type of world come playoff time than the regular season. And having the experience to go through that last year prepares you a little better for this year. You just learn the atmosphere, how everything’s going to be. Little mistakes can ruin a game for you. So you try to eliminate the mistakes, and try to find ways to come out on top and win.

therams.com: Even though you’ve still got goals ahead of you, can you put into perspective a little bit what this season has been like for you?

Donald: It’s been good. Just to put the body of work in how I did and to see it all pay off and be able to have success to help my team to win games, and help put us in the position we’re in today — a lot of credit goes to my coaches and my teammates. But just working and trying to find ways to win it all.

therams.com: When talking about your season and the contract extension you signed a couple weeks ago, you said, “Thank you ain’t enough.” Why do you feel that way?

Donald: I just feel like all the things I went through to try to get this thing done, you’ve got to show up. You’ve got to show why you’re worth that, why they did what they did. So I just go out there with that mindset to try to dominate — play at a high level. I put the body of work in, so I knew the potential I had to have a season like this. So just to see it come full circle and pay off like it did, it just motivates you and makes you work even harder.

therams.com: Was there something that you did in the offseason that made you think, ‘This is how I know I’m going to take my performance to the next level’?

Donald: Just grinding. I feel like I came in the best shape of my life. Probably the strongest I’ve ever been ever in my life. So working with my trainer I’ve been working with since high school in DeWayne Brown, and working with the Pitt strength coach Dave Andrews, helping me to build more muscle mass and things like that — I felt pretty confident coming into the season. I felt ready.

therams.com: What do you think the Coliseum will be like for the Divisional round? And how do you think you’ll feel coming out of the tunnel?

Donald: It’s going to be live. Loud. A lot of excitement. A lot of jitters, but it’s going to be a game to remember. It’ll feel great. Crowd going wild, playing in that big game again. What I got to experience last year — that’s what you train for, to play in big games like that. All the hard work, all the sweat, blood, and tears you put into this game is to be on a stage like that and have an opportunity to play in a World Championship one day. So I’m going to leave it all out there for sure.

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