INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Aaron Donald's impeccable resume would make any defensive player envious.
He owns a Super Bowl ring, three NFL Defensive Player of the Year titles, won the 2014 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award and the 2018 Deacon Jones Award as the league's sacks leader. He has made seven All-Pro teams and nine Pro Bowls and the unanimous All-American also collected the Lombardi Award, Outland Trophy and Chuck Bednarik Award among other honors in college.
Even at age 32, with nothing left to prove, the league's best defensive tackle shows no signs of slowing down. And this week, like most, blocking Donald will be the focal point for his next foe.
“We’ve got to have a plan for him, know where he’s at at all times and not let him wreck the game,” said Indianapolis Colts coach Shane Steichen, calling Donald one of the best interior lineman in NFL history. "They line him up all over the place. Like I said, we’ve got to have a great, great plan for him.”
Indy (2-1) learned that lesson the hard way when it last faced Donald in 2021.
On that day, he recorded seven tackles, one for loss and three quarterback hits. But his biggest impact didn't appear in the box score: He helped preserve one goal-line stand by clogging the middle while a teammate recorded a sack and he preserved another by blowing up a shovel pass that was intercepted.
It's an example of why the Rams (1-2) have made Donald the league's highest-paid tackle.
Sunday's game, though, pits Donald against one of the league's top defensive tackle tandems — two-time Pro Bowler DeForest Buckner and Grover Stewart, who Colts coaches often insist has played at a Pro Bowl level the past two seasons. Together, they've formed a combination that has given the Colts a significant boost.
Indy leads the league in forced fumbles (seven) and strip sacks (five) and is tied for second in fumble recoveries (four) and sacks (12), and Buckner and Stewart have held up well enough against offensive linemen to free linebacker Zaire Franklin to make a league-leading 45 tackles.
And if the Rams want to get their season back on track, their potentially short-handed offensive line needs to win Sunday's battle of the big men.
“You always want to stay balanced,” Rams offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur said. "But you’re also not going to just go beat your head against the wall if they’re saying you’re not going to do it.”
Two big names will miss Sunday's game: Rams All-Pro receiver Cooper Kupp and Colts All-Pro running back Jonathan Taylor. It might be the last game they miss.
Coach Sean McVay said Wednesday he's hopeful Kupp (hamstring) can be activated off injured reserve next week. His 2021 single-season totals — 145 catches and 1,947 yards — were the second-most in league history.
Taylor (offseason ankle surgery) also can be activated from the physically unable to perform list next week, though he's also mired in an ugly contract dispute with the Colts.
Rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson started Indy's first two games. On Friday, he was cleared from the concussion protocol. Coach Shane Steichen made the announcement after Richardson completed his third straight practice.
The former Florida star didn't play the final minute of a season-opening loss to Jacksonville because of what he described as a bruised knee and sore ankle. He then entered the concussion protocol during the first half of a Week 2 victory at Houston. He sat out last week while still in the protocol.
“I’m glad he’s back,” rookie receiver Josh Downs said of Richardson. “Great player. He’s going to go out there and make some plays for us with his legs and his arm.”
Three-time Pro Bowl center Ryan Kelly practiced Wednesday and Thursday but didn't participate Friday and has not yet cleared the protocol. Left tackle Bernhard Raimann also is in protocol.
THE LONG HAUL
The schedule makers certainly haven’t made life easy on the Rams early this season. They started with a road trip to Seattle and a home date against rival San Francisco, last season’s NFC runner-up.
Now after visiting Cincinnati on Monday night, the Rams are heading back to the Midwest for another game. The two roundtrips tally nearly 8,500 miles — on a short week. Some teams may have opted to stay closer to Indianapolis, but McVay did not.
Trading players has become an increasingly common practice recently in the NFL, but 51 years ago, the Rams and Colts made an unprecedented swap.
Jim Irsay's late father, Robert, bought the Rams for $19 million, with most of the shares coming from the estate of former Rams owner Daniel R. Reeves. Robert Irsay then swapped franchises with the late Carroll Rosenbloom, who owned the Baltimore Colts.
The Colts moved to Indianapolis in 1984 and the Rams played in Los Angeles until moving to St. Louis in 1995. The franchise returned to the West Coast in 2016.
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