Aaron Donald gave Rams what Bears thought they’d get from Khalil Mack
Other teams have tried to get their own version of him, but Donald has been a unique figure on the NFL landscape since the Rams drafted him 13th overall in 2014.
INGLEWOOD, Calif. — The biggest sack of Aaron Donald’s career wasn’t a sack at all.
The Bengals lined up at the Rams’ 49-yard line trailing by three with 43 seconds to play in Sunday’s Super Bowl at SoFi Stadium. The Bengals had a receiver split to either side, a tight end in the left slot and a running back to the left of quarterback Joe Burrow.
They’d just failed to run for a first down — Donald stopped Samaje Perine’s momentum on third-and-1 — so the Bengals took a timeout and drew up a fourth-down pass play.
Donald — the best defensive player on the planet playing perhaps the last down of his career — lined up across from Bengals left guard Quinton Spain chopped down on his arm and sprinted around his left. It took 2.2 seconds before Donald had both arms around Burrow, spinning him counterclockwise. After one full rotation, Burrow, looking like a rodeo rider, flung the ball forward incomplete.
The Rams, in their home stadium, had won the Super Bowl 23-20.
Donald had clinched it — the way he should. He finished the night with two sacks for 10 yards, two tackles for loss and three quarterback hurries.
“You gotta be relentless,” he said. “You want something bad enough, you gotta go get it.”
Other teams have tried to get their own version of him, but Donald has been a unique figure on the NFL landscape since the Rams drafted him 13th overall in 2014. He’s what the Bears thought they were getting when they traded for Khalil Mack in 2018.
“When it was a fourth down and you could see they got into the shotgun and they were probably not gonna run the football, I said, ‘Aaron’s gonna close the game out right here,’” Rams coach Sean McVay said.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford couldn’t match the final drive. But he knew the right person ended it.
“How fitting,” he said, “for Aaron to do what he does.”
Long before they got Mack, the Bears thought they were getting Donald. Receiver Odell Beckham — who starred in the first half Sunday before hurting his knee — was taken 12th overall by the Giants in 2014. The Rams, picking 13th, already had maybe the best defensive line unit in the game. They had former No. 1 overall pick Chris Long, future Bears edge rusher Robert Quinn — who was coming off a 19-sack season — and Michael Brockers.
The Rams, though, thought they could make the line even better. When they took Donald out of Pittsburgh, the Bears — and GM Phil Emery — were crushed. They took cornerback Kyle Fuller 14th.
Unable to draft their own Donald, the Bears set about trading for one. In 2018, GM Ryan Pace traded two first-round picks and a third-rounder as part of a package to pry Mack from the Raiders.
Mack had stayed away from the only franchise he’d ever known because he wanted a new contract. While he waited, the Rams signed Donald to a six-year, $135 million deal that included a $40 million signing bonus. In that moment, Mack would joke later, he let out a curse word that would have embarrassed his parents.
Two days later, he had his own deal, specifically designed to top Donald. Mack got a six-year, $141 million deal with a $34 million signing bonus. Mack acknowledged Donald’s role in his own contract.
Four seasons later, Donald has been to two Super Bowls, winning one. Mack has been to two playoff games, losing two.
The 30-year-old Donald didn’t dismiss a report he’ll consider retirement this offseason — “I’m just in this moment, man,” he said — but stopped to appreciate how far he’d come since the draft.
“This organization drafted me eight years ago to have the opportunity to help bring this here,” the seven-time all-pro said. “To start in St. Louis and have our struggles and then come to LA and be able to build something special. …
“To be here right now and look back at the things I was able to accomplish is truly a blessing.”