ATLANTA - As someone who moved from Texas to Minnesota to cover the Vikings, the first Vikings practice I witnessed was on the grass fields at Winter Park in the spring of 1990. Randle, then about 250 pounds, ran circles around the team’s excellent, veteran offensive line, which became aggravated by Randle’s quickness and relentlessness. It was like watching elephants swatting at a mosquito.
Randle would bulk up to a reported 287 pounds while retaining his best athletic attributes. He would become one of the best interior pass rushers in NFL history, and a Hall of Fame inductee. In his most prolific season, he produced an NFL-leading 15½ sacks.
On Saturday, Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald is expected to become the third player in NFL history to win consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards. On Sunday, Donald might be the Rams’ most important player in the Super Bowl, tasked with pressuring New England quarterback Tom Brady and controlling the Patriots’ surging running game.
With his blend of power, speed and technique. Donald is paying homage to a trio of Vikings defensive tackles. Alan Page won the NFL’s first Defensive Player of the Year award and played at a listed 245 pounds, back when NFL players were more rangy than massive. Keith Millard set the record for sacks in one season by an interior lineman, with 18, in 1989. Tall and lean, with powerful arms, Millard played at a listed 260 pounds. Randle excelled more because of explosiveness, technique and attitude than sheer size.
Over the past two years, Donald might be eclipsing any player produced by the Purple People Eaters or the Rams’ similarly legendary Fearsome Foursome.
Donald could become only the third player to win consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards, along with J.J. Watt and Lawrence Taylor. This season, he recorded a league-best 20½ sacks, breaking Millard’s single-season record for a defensive tackle.
Donald is listed at 6-1 and 280 pounds. Teammates say he’s more like 6-0, 265. As his Instagram account demonstrates, those pounds are strapped on him like armor. “The dude has an eight-pack,” said fellow defensive lineman Michael Brockers. “Makes me jealous.”
Like Randle, Donald turns a perceived weakness into a strength by playing low and fast, exploding out of his crouch into linemen or between double-teams, then turning on his speed. “He runs like a linebacker,” Los Angeles defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. “He’s quick, he’s fast, he has endurance, and he has the willpower to play all-out on every play.”
Rams cornerback Aqib Talib called Donald “totally disruptive. If he goes all-out in practice, the offense can’t even get much work done.”
“During the game, I don’t always see what he’s doing,” said fellow defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. “I just hear offensive linemen cussing.”
Donald grew up in Pittsburgh and attended Pitt. The Rams chose him with the 13th pick in the 2014 draft. In three consecutive drafts, the Rams chose Donald, star running back Todd Gurley and quarterback Jared Goff. In 2017, the Rams hired Sean McVay as their coach, and McVay hired Phillips, the legendary defensive coordinator.
That’s how you build a champion.
“This is what you dream about, being on this stage,” Donald said. “I told McVay [Thursday] — thank you. He wanted to thank the players but I said, ‘Once you came, things changed around.’ He’s the leader we needed.”
Donald is building a résumé that might be one of the best in NFL history. He’s also facing a guy who coached Taylor.
“Aaron Donald is a great football player,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “But I wouldn’t put anybody ahead of Lawrence Taylor. Taylor’s the best I’ve ever seen, certainly the best I’ve ever coached.”
Sunday, Donald gets to prove he’s the best Belichick has coached against.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at TalkNorth.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. • firstname.lastname@example.org