Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald is widely regarded as one of the premier players in the league, and for good reason. In just 14 games, Donald recorded a team-leading 11.0 sacks, which is a mark that tied his career high. And according to Pro Football Focus, Donald led the league with 91 quarterback pressures heading into Week 17 — 12 more than the Von Miller at No. 2.
That's why one storyline over the course of this week will certainly be Donald versus the Falcons' offensive front. Atlanta just placed starting left guard Andy Levitre on injured reserve after re-aggrivating a triceps injury during Sunday's game against Carolina. That means reserve offensive lineman Ben Garland is in line to start throughout the postseason.
Garland has three career starts, all of which have come this season.
Plus, Falcons center Alex Mack has been playing through a calf injury. He was listed as limited for Atlanta's Tuesday practice.
Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn said he's not anticipating any changes in terms of scheme on the interior. But Atlanta certainly has a lot of respect for Donald and how he can impact a game.
"We really value his quickness," Quinn told L.A. media on a Tuesday morning conference call. "My background is in defensive line, so why I think he's so unique is he's got the get-off of a defensive end. If he was just playing defensive end, he'd probably do just fine because he's got that kind of quickness to get off the ball and get on the edge of a blocker. Then, when you add that kind of quickness inside — I think that's what makes him so unique."
Atlanta got an up close view of Donald last year when the Falcons played the Rams and Donald was able to sack quarterback Matt Ryan in the contest. Quinn noted that Donald seemed as pro ready as players come when he entered the league out of Pitt, in part because of how well he uses his hands. But Quinn has also noticed how Donald's added elements to his game.
"Here's what I see in his game right now — the ability not just to play up field, the stunts that go with it," Quinn said. "I think he's in the right scheme for him, because of his ability to go up the field. As far as rushers go, that's a challenge every week — and certainly the Rams have their share of them.
"But man is he having a hell of a year and definitely somebody that's earned our respect," Quinn continued. "I know the defensive line watches a lot of sacks around the league each week just in terms of training and staying ready and Aaron's been on that tape quite a bit."