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Practice notes | Commanders prepare for 'dog fight' with Aaron Donald

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The Los Angeles Rams' defensive line is not the most formidable the Washington Commanders have faced this season. With 29 sacks through 13 games, they haven't been nearly as productive as the Philadelphia Eagles, Buffalo Bills or Dallas Cowboys.

None of those defensive fronts have Aaron Donald in the lineup, though.

"One of the greatest to ever do it," Jonathan Allen said after Wednesday's practice.

Donald might be having a quieter season than what the nine-time Pro Bowler and seven-time First Team All-Pro is used to in his career, but don't get it twisted; the future Hall of Famer is going to be one of the Commanders' biggest obstacles when they travel to Los Angeles this weekend. And everyone, player and coach alike, is aware of how important it will be to have an answer for him.

"You have to pay close attention to him because he can wreck a game," said assistant head coach/offensive coordinator **Eric Bieniemy.** "I've been in one of those [games] where he's made a lot of hay, and he forces you to keep focus on him. But it's always fun. It's always a unique challenge."

Donald is in his 10th season, and by now, players are familiar with his reputation. Aside from his Pro Bowls and All-Pro accolades, here's a list of all he's achieved: three Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year selections, a Super Bowl victory, 109 sacks (he led the league in 2018 with 20.5), 533 tackles, 24 forced fumbles, 20 pass breakups and 258 quarterback hits.

Yep, that's what a first ballot Hall of Fame resume looks like. 

On the surface, Donald's numbers in 2023 look tamer than what's considered normal for him. With four games left, he has 43 tackles -- currently a career low -- with just six sacks and two pass deflections. Look a little closer, however, and it's clear that Donald is still a disruptive force. He still has the third best overall grade from Pro Football Focus (89.9) and he has 70 total pressures, including 49 hurries.

Terry McLaurin remembers the last time Washington matched up against Donald, when the defensive tackle had four sacks and four tackles in a 30-10 victory over the Burgundy & Gold. Getting to the quarterback that many times is crazy enough on its own, McLaurin said, but seeing how productive he was is a testament to Donald's work ethic.

"I see a Hall of Famer," McLaurin said. "I see a guy who plays all the downs as hard as he can. He's an impact player."

Donald presents a unique challenge compared to other defensive tackles because he can line up at any spot up front. Most of his career snaps have been in the "B gap," (the space between the offensive guard and tackle) but he can also line up head-to-head against a center, go one-on-one with offensive tackles and even as a defensive end. 

Part of the challenge Donald presents is identifying where he intends to attack the quarterback.

"He does everything so well," Sam Howell said on Wednesday. "Just how fast he's able to get off the ball, how strong he is getting off the football, and you got to have a plan for him. You got to know where he is every single snap. He's one of the very, very special players in the league."

The responsibility of keeping Donald away from Howell will fall on Sam Cosmi and the rest of the Commanders' offensive line. While protecting Howell has been a problem for the offense as a whole -- he's still the most sacked quarterback in the league and could break the all-time record this season -- Cosmi has held his own better than most of the unit. In his first full season as a guard, PFF ranks him as the eighth best at the position with only one sack allowed on 628 drop backs.

But Donald is going to be unlike any other player Cosmi has faced up to this point.

"He's just so quick," Cosmi said. "He's a little smaller, but you cannot underestimate that, because it's a smaller surface to punch and get your hands on ... You gotta get your hands on him, and the battle goes from there."

Not that the Commanders are in a position to underestimate anyone in the first place. The offense is statistically better than it was in 2022, but that has not led to many touchdowns with the unit averaging just 20 points per game. There have been flashes of the offense being more productive, but they have been far too infrequent to dig the Commanders out of the hole that they have found themselves in.

Part of that is credited to the struggles with pass protection. In a long season of playing against some of the NFL's best pass-rushers, Donald presents the biggest challenge for the Commanders. 

Washington is a 6.5-point underdog this weekend. Any hope the team has of shattering that narrative hinges on Washington finding a way to limit one of the best defensive linemen in recent memory.

"It's going to be a dog fight," Cosmi said.

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