Aaron Donald and Khalil Mack were at the top of the NFL’s defensive world as 27-year-olds in 2018.
Donald, the Los Angeles Rams’ star-defensive tackle, won his second trophy NFL Defensive Player of the Year trophy thanks to a whopping 20.5 sacks that set the NFL record for sacks by a defensive tackle. His efforts helped lead the Rams to Super Bowl LIII, where they lost to the New England Patriots.
But as amazing as Donald was, Mack was right next to him in the defensive hierarchy. The Edge rusher traded to the Chicago Bears from the Oakland Raiders just before this season was a first-team All-Pro pick that collected 12.5 sacks and helped lead the Bears to their first playoff berth in eight seasons.
But when the two meet Monday night at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California, they are not sitting 1-2 at the top of the NFL defensive hierarchy. Donald, after 12.5 sacks and a fifth straight All-Pro pick last year, has already collected 7.5 sacks this season and appears to be the favorite for a third DPOY in four seasons (he also won in 2017). Although Mack was still a Pro Bowler, he was not an All-Pro last year, and his status as Donald’s most important DPOY contest has been threatened.
Separated by three months of age, is there a greater separation in production? We ask Bears reporter Jeff Dickerson and Rams reporter Lindsey Thiry to break down the defensive stars.
In 2018, both had monster seasons. Since then, their paths have differed somewhat. What has gone right for Donald and wrong for Mack?
Dickerson: There is nothing “wrong” with Mack. Rather, Mack is a victim of his own success. Most players would be excited to end a season with 47 tackles, 8.5 sacks and five forced fumbles – Mack’s numbers in 2019 – but Mack raised the line astronomically high the year before. He failed to dominate last season as he did in 2018; Mack’s first year in Chicago after the Raiders traded him before Week 1. The good news for the Bears – and bad news for the rest of the NFL – is that Mack is back. He already has 4.5 sacks for one of the league’s best defenses. Mack terrorized Tom Brady in Week 5 and even hip-threw Tampa’s starting right tackle for good goal. Good luck, Jared Goff.
Thiry: Ask any teammate, coach or even opponent and they will tell you that Donald’s efforts at every game, whether it’s practice or a game, are second to none. He does not take a play off and he does not take a day off (even after the Super Bowl look, Donald only rested a few days before returning to his strenuous training). “He never gets complacent,” Rams coach Sean McVay said. “When you look at the way he works and gives himself a chance to improve because of the consistency and attention to detail, the focus and the concentration he takes on every single thing he does, it’s good to be around. ” Donald continues to find new ways to get his job done due to unsurpassed dedication and hard work.
In what kind of defense plan does everyone thrive the most? Want to offer an example of their best game since 2018?
Dickerson: Mack is a clean, 3-4 off linebacker. He’s so talented that he sometimes puts up with his hand on the ground, but he’s most dangerous out of a two-point stance. Mack showed the entire NFL – if he did not already know – how multidimensional he is when he debuted against the Bears vs. Packers in Week 1 of the 2018 season. Mack became the first player since 1982 to record a sack, forced fumble, fumble recovery, tapping and a touchdown in one half.
Thiry: Donald spent three seasons in a 4-3 defense and then switched to a 3-4 in 2017 when former Rams defense coordinator Wade Phillips arrived. New defense coordinator Brandon Staley kept the base 3-4 in place after he was hired this season. Donald has thrived regardless of plan, but this season there is an increase in how often Donald shows up at various locations along the line. “In certain situations, we will certainly make sure he is not a static target and in the same place,” McVay says. “It makes it a lot easier to kind of game plan a player of his size when you know where he wants to be.” So the Aries and Donald have tried to keep opponents guessing. In a Week 5 win over the Washington Football Team, Donald broke out for a season-high four sacks. “I was blocked,” Donald said.
How to plan a team game for Donald? For Mack?
Dickerson: Careful. Block Mack with a guy at your own risk. And if you double-group Mack, it frees up room for defensive tackle Akiem Hicks and pass-rusher Robert Quinn, who roughly played 30-35 snaps per game. Basically, the Bears are really, really tough on defense when Mack is at his best. You better flip Mack out and get rid of the ball quickly. Otherwise, it can get ugly for the opposite quarterback.
Thiry: The 49ers delivered a plan last Sunday as they defeated the Rams 24-16. Donald did not have a sack and only had a quarterback hit on Jimmy Garoppolo. “It was a lot of perimeter-type stuff where you see a lot of that kind of flip-play … A lot of throwing actions,” McVay said. “Many of the concepts and different things that they activated to minimize the impact you can have as an inside player, where they really stretched your edges in your second and third level.” Watch as other teams try to emulate what the Niners achieved; however, it is likely that Donald spent the week figuring out how to beat that scheme.
What has been the Achilles heel in their respective games?
Dickerson: The cast. The Bears had plenty of injuries last year, which contributed to Mack’s fall. Without Hicks (elbow injury much of 2019) or a consistent pass-rusher on the other hand (former first-round pick Leonard Floyd), teams focused almost all of their attention on stopping Mack. For six weeks, the only serious loss the Bears have suffered on defense has been nose-style Eddie Goldman, who opted out of the summer due to COVID-19-related concerns. Mack is especially dangerous when the rest of the defense is healthy.
Thiry: As an individual, Donald does not have an Achilles heel. He is dominant in every way. The only issue, like Mack, is that opponents are able to enter Donald due to the lack of dominant pass-rushers coming from the edge this season. Floyd, who the Bears released in the offseason, has maintained a sustained presence and has two sacks. However, the position opposite of Floyd has been in motion as the Rams mix several players in an attempt to create a more consistent pass-rush.
How does each match affect Monday night the most?
Dickerson: Mack is such a force that Los Angeles will have to beat him. Unfortunately for the rams, Hicks also has a monster year and can sometimes not be blocked from the border. Security Eddie Jackson is an opportunistic playmaker. Cornerback Kyle Fuller is a former Pro Bowler. Veterans Security Tashaun Gipson already has two interceptions. Roquan Smith is Chicago’s leading tackle. The defense gives Mack attention that not only affects play by his play, but also by his presence.
Thiry: The Bears will have to account for Donald at every snap. Even while facing a double-team of 70.1% of his passes rushing this season, Donald has league-high 7.5 sacks. And the worst news yet for the Bears is that Donald is coming out of a downfall against the 49ers that will inspire him to get to quarterback Nick Foles. Donald has not gone two consecutive games without a sack since weeks 5 and 6 in 2019. Look for his pressure to force Foles to some stray throws that the Rams’ secondary led by cornerback Jalen Ramsey will be ready to take advantage of.
The Bears win if Mack … / The Rams win if Donald …
Dickerson: … plays the way he is able to play. The Bears need Mack to fire Goff once or twice and hit him five to six times. The Bears will have to trust that their defense will win. Maybe Mack can also crack down on offense. It would also be useful.
Thiry: … makes Foles uncomfortable. Ram’s defense has got sacks in bundles – see their eight sacks versus Washington. So if Donald is able to go on an offensive line that has a pass-block win of 57.3% (16th in the NFL), it could be a long night for Foles and other playmakers in an offense, who are at least statistically ranked among the least productive in the league.