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INGLEWOOD, California – Aaron Donald overpowered the right guard before getting Jimmy Garoppolo in his grip, forcing the San Francisco 49ers quarterback into a desperate throw that landed in the hands of linebacker Travin Howard for an interception.
The game that sealed the Los Angeles Rams’ 20-17 victory in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game was classic Anders.
What happened a few minutes earlier was not.
After the 49ers took a 17-7 lead in the third quarter with Garoppolo’s 16-yard touchdown pass to tight-end George Kittle, the Fox broadcast showed Anders summoning the defense around him on the sideline to a crunchy pep talk that only seemed abnormal , because who delivered it.
“That’s what managers do,” Ram’s linebacker Von Miller said. “He’s a great leader.”
Except that’s not how Donald has led in most of his eight NFL seasons, preferring to set the tone with his game and work ethic. But therein lies the difference, as the Rams have mentioned with the superstar’s defensive tackle during their run for the Super Bowl LVI: He’s the same dominant force, only noticeably higher.
“His willingness to lead appears to be higher,” Ram’s defensive coordinator Raheem Morris said last week, volunteering for the observation. “Aaron Donald does not talk much with an entire group. He talks more with his unit. But this week he has talked to the defense. He is more willing to talk to different people.”
As Los Angeles cornerback Jalen Ramsey said when asked about Morris’ comment, “AD will still make sure he is in his own and he will be AD. He will not change. The person will not change, but he has certainly been it.a little bit more vocal, would like to break down the defense a little more than usual and stuff like that, and try to give them just that extra motivation.
“Obviously, everyone on the whole team, but especially the defense, thinks so highly of him, so it means a little extra when AD does something like that.”
To illustrate how great players can differ in how they interact with teammates, Morris noted how much more vocal Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks was compared to another All-Pro defender he trained with Tampa Bay Buccaneers, cornerback Ronde Barber.
“Round Barber was closer to an Aaron Donald-type guy because he was more laid back until it was time to talk,” Morris said. “Aaron reminds me a little bit of that kind of mindset. He talks whenever he wants and when he talks, everyone listens. It’s the old EF Hutton deal.”
It was a reference to the brokerage firm whose advertisements would show anyone within earshot who stopped in their tracks and knuckled down to hear a piece of Hutton’s financial advice.
Rams defenders gathered around Anders with similarly delighted attention after falling behind by 10 points on Sunday. They forced punts on the 49ers’ next two possessions before the third and final ended with interception.
In previous years, defensive tackle Michael Brockers would have been the player who gathers the Rams’ defense from the middle of that circle. Or maybe security John Johnson III. Brockers was traded to the Detroit Lions last season, and he watched Sunday’s game wearing a No. 99 Donald jersey and posted a picture of it on Instagram. Johnson signed with the Cleveland Browns in free agency.
So now it’s Donald’s time.
“We just had to lock in a little more,” Ramsey said, passing on the essence of Donald’s message. “We had to give more. We had to really want it. It had to come down to it, that wanted it more. We had to show it. Everyone wanted it, but when any of our leaders talk to us and gather us around and take us together, they get your opinion even more right.
“Especially AD. You want to go to the Bowl for AD.”
The last comment from Ramsey reiterated what has been a theme in public comments from Rams defenders and coaches.
“This building wants to win for Aaron Donald,” Morris said.
The Rams were fresh on their loss to the Green Bay Packers in the division round last year when they hired Morris as Brandon Staley’s replacement. When he saw the replay of that game, Morris was struck by the emotion that overwhelmed Anders, who wiped the tears from his eyes on the sidelines in the final seconds.
“I just looked into his eyes and I felt it hurt and I felt that pain and when I got here it was the first thing I said to him: ‘I want to do everything in my power. .. to help you win a championship and I mean it, “said Morris.
Perhaps Donald’s newfound willingness to speak reflects his sense of urgency to win as much as it does an obligation to fill an empty leadership. He has everything else on a Hall of Fame summary: three NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards, eight straight Pro Bowls, seven straight first-team All-Pro selections and 98 regular seasons, including 12.5 in 2021.
But no championship. The Rams came to the Super Bowl LIII after the 2018 season and lost despite keeping Tom Brady and the New England Patriots at 13 points.
“I know what it feels like to be there, but I do not know what it feels like to win,” Donald said last week. “I feel like I’ve achieved a lot in a short time in this league. The only thing I need now is … to be world champion.”
As a 30-year-old, with questions about the long-term viability of a Rams list built to win now, Anders may not get many better chances than this one.
As he celebrated the game seal on Sunday, he shot both arms over his head, with one hand pointing at the base of a finger at the other, just where a ring would sit.
“A Super Bowl is all he needs,” Miller said. “He could go into the sunset and I will do everything in my power to make it happen for him.”
– ESPN reporter Lindsey Thiry contributed to this story