When they make the Hall of Fame induction video for Aaron Donald someday, they might want to interview Steelers left tackle Al Villanueva, who’s still trying to figure out how the in-person experience of trying to block the back-to-back NFL defensive player of the year compares to the process of preparing for such a chore.
“You know what, I don't know how much of it is — how do I want to call it — the fear factor he imposes, with his mouthpiece and his helmet and the way he looks, his muscles in his pads,” Villanueva was saying after the Steelers’ 17-12 win against Donald’s Los Angeles Rams, “and how much of it is him actually being an unbelievable player. He’s definitely a combination of both.”
The Rams pass rush, for which Donald is the engine, was such a point of emphasis Sunday afternoon for the Steelers that they reconfigured their offensive line just to attempt to match it. As coach Mike Tomlin explained it, they started second-year third-round draft pick Chuks Okorafor — who hadn't played a snap in 2019 — at right tackle and slid Matt Feiler from that spot to left guard so that “essentially, we had three tackles on the field.”
It was every bit of essential against Donald, the Penn Hills High School and Pitt living legend playing in his hometown and at Heinz Field for the first time since his final college game there, a 41-31 loss to Miami in November 2013.
“We didn't really have a crazy strategy,” said Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey. “It was just go out there and play football, man. Keep him off of the quarterback, try to get him in the run game, things like that. When you're that good of a defensive player, you're going to make plays.”
Which is why the Aaron Donald Experience was something of an up-and-down day for the Steelers. Donald, who came in with four sacks over his past three games, finished with five tackles, half a sack, two tackles for loss and three quarterback hurries. As that stat line would indicate, Donald didn't necessarily wreck the game, but he did change it the handful of times he wrecked shop.
Donald’s lone sack was when he got to Mason Rudolph in the end zone and combined with outside linebacker Clay Matthews for a safety that cut the Steelers’ lead to 14-12 early in the fourth quarter.
“He had a hell of a game, as expected, especially coming home,” said Villanueva, who was predictably disappointed with his line’s showing overall.
“We did not do a good job. They were very talented, they were very good, but they hit the quarterback too many times, they sacked him too many times. We were very sluggish on offense today. Unbelievable job by the defense, but that performance was definitely subpar.”
In all, the Rams sacked Rudolph three times for a loss of 11 yards and had eight hurries. The running game wasn't any better, posting 42 yards on 27 carries. Much of it was due to No. 99 in white. There was the play early on when Donald bull-rushed right over top of All-Pro right guard David DeCastro to get penetration in the backfield.
Then there was when Donald slipped untouched between Villanueva and Feiler on the left side, getting a free rush at Rudolph, who just barely got rid of the ball in time before being planted in the grass. Of course, there was the safety, an ill-advised play-action that not even a jumbo formation could make up for against Donald plowing through the middle.
“He knows when to pick his spots,” DeCastro said, “and he sure does.”
Same as last time the Steelers saw him, in 2015 when the Rams were in St. Louis. DeCastro was the only Steelers lineman from Sunday who also played in that victory, as Pouncey was out for the season and Ramon Foster missed another game Sunday recovering from a concussion.
Donald had four tackles and a sack in the first meeting four years ago, but the Steelers also prevailed, 12-6. In Round 2, the Steelers started a combination they’d never used up front, not even last year when Okorafor started once as a rookie at right tackle in place of Feiler.
“We thought that was the best mix, under the circumstances, to give us a chance,” Tomlin said. “We’ll evaluate tomorrow. Those were our intentions going into the game. We proceeded, and we proceeded without fear. We’ll see what it looks like from an evaluation standpoint.
The other four veterans on the line all insisted they were comfortable with Okorafor stepping in for B.J. Finney, who started in place of Foster last week, and Feiler flipping sides of the line. Pouncey’s challenge to his teammates was quiet, but stern.
“I don't have to say much, man. I’ve been here long enough, they know how I am,” Pouncey said. “I just give them that look like, ‘Let’s go.’”
The 11-year veteran smiled as he relayed Okorafor’s response to “that look.”
In the same vein, they paid respect to Donald, but didn't quite let him enjoy a happy homecoming. They doubled him, paid extra attention to him and all got a chance to get a piece of him, and ultimately came out on top.
“We did enough to keep him away,” DeCastro said of Donald. “He had his plays, but we won the game.”
Brian Batko: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @BrianBatko.