ATLANTA — All season long, defensive tackle Aaron Donald has been making big-time plays in big-time situations.
Yes, he set the NFL record for sacks in a single season by a defensive tackle by reaching 20.5. But 9.5 of those quarterback takedowns came in the fourth quarter — when Los Angeles needed them the most.
Take Week 13 against the Lions, for example. The Rams were in a pretty tight 16-13 battle in Detroit, when Donald brought down quarterback Matthew Stafford for a strip-sack. L.A. recovered it, running back Todd Gurley put it in the box from 13-yards out, and the Rams won the NFC West.
That's the kind of play it often takes to win in the Super Bowl — like how Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham strip-sacked Patriots quarterback Tom Brady to help seal Philadelphia's championship.
And it's what Donald is striving to do on Sunday.
"You always visualize making a big play like that," Donald said from his podium at Super Bowl LIII this week. "A game-changing play — that's what you're here for. What better stage to do it than now?"
Really, there's no better stage. And while Donald hasn't yet recorded a postseason sack this year, there's no doubt he's been affecting the outcome given the way teams are making sure he doesn't wreck their day. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has called Donald "pretty much unblockable" in the lead up to Super Bowl LIII, which is part of why Donald hasn't had many one-on-one pass-rushing opportunities since the regular-season ended.
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"That's when I'm smiling — when I see that," Donald said. "It's not often, but you've gotta keep playing."
But Donald's going to play within the confines of his job as Los Angeles' three technique. And that means he and the rest of the defense have to be stout against a Patriots ground game that's averaged 183.8 yards rushing in their last four contests starting with Week 16.
"They've been running the ball good. For us to have the opportunity to rush the passer, we've got to stuff the run," Donald said. "And then when that comes time to get after him, we'll get after him."
For Donald, that's going to come through rushing from the interior — a spot that in some ways gives him an advantage.
"You're closer to the quarterback so you have the opportunity to get to him a little faster. So you've just got to do your job," Donald said.
But Brady has not been sacked at all through two games this postseason. Donald credited New England's offensive line for playing well together, and noted that he can tell on film just how well the unit is coached. And that combined with Brady's ability to get rid of the ball quickly has kept the 41-year-old quarterback upright.
"No quarterback wants to get hit, so they're going to try to find ways to slow the D-line down by getting the ball out quick, doing certain things," Donald said. "But can't get frustrated, gotta keep playing. And we're going to have opportunities where he's going to hold the ball and we've just got to get him down to the ground."
And that's where Donald comes in once again. As he often says, big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games. This is the biggest of them all. And it's one where L.A. will likely need a game-changing play to hoist the Lombardi.
"[Y]ou're always going to need a big play during the game," Donald said. "Somebody's going to make a big play. Somebody needs to. That's just…
"In these types of games, this is the two best teams. Somebody's going to have to step up and make that big play that's going to change the game."
If Super Bowl LIII goes like most of the 2018 season, that somebody is likely going to be No. 99.
Check out photos of the Los Angeles Rams on Opening Night of Super Bowl LIII.