DETROIT — The Detroit Lions thought they had a chance to spoil a division-clinching party.
Apparently, they weren’t familiar enough with Aaron Donald.
Throughout the season, the Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle has made jaw-dropping plays, but none more so than late in games when his team has needed him the most.
Sunday, in a 30-16 victory at Ford Field, proved no exception.
The Rams clung to a 3-point lead midway through the fourth quarter when Matthew Stafford dropped back and had little warning that Donald had just made a mockery of not one, but two offensive linemen.
Donald launched himself at the Lions quarterback, knocking him over and knocking the ball loose. Outside linebacker Samson Ebukam recovered the fumble. Soon after, Todd Gurley II rushed for a touchdown to put the Rams ahead by 10 with 6 minutes, 53 seconds remaining in the game.
“He’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” Rams quarterback Jared Goff said after the game, echoing a sentiment shared in every corner of the team’s locker room.
“l think he should be in the MVP talk,” safety John Johnson III said.
Both statements are accurate.
Donald, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, finished with two sacks Sunday, both in the fourth quarter and both accentuating his late-game dominance this season.
“Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games,” Donald said. “That is what we need to keep doing.”
Donald leads the NFL with 7.5 sacks and 21 pressures in the fourth quarter, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. His 16.5 sacks this season are the most by a defensive tackle through 12 games since 1982.
“Definitely a lot of work trying to find ways and trying to help my team to win,” said Donald, who finished with five tackles, four for a loss. “When plays present themselves, take advantage of them.”
It’s almost unheard of for a defensive player to contend for league MVP, let alone win the award. Only two have done so in NFL history: Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Alan Page in 1971 and New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor in 1986.
But if ever there was a player who could buck the trend, it’s Donald — a fifth-year pro who reset the market for defensive players when he signed the the richest contract for a defensive player in NFL history before the season with a six-year, $135 million extension.
“He’s forcing turnovers, he’s getting there at the most important times,” coach Sean McVay said. “And that’s what we talk about all the time, that competitive greatness.”
A week earlier, in a win over the Seattle Seahawks, he kept pressure on Russell Wilson as the Super Bowl-winning quarterback attempted a game-winning drive. Donald amassed four sacks against the San Francisco 49ers. And in Week 4, he sacked Kirk Cousins in the final minutes to secure a victory.
“All you need to say is that damn A.D., you know, he always making plays,” said Gurley, who has scored a league-high 19 touchdowns and is also in the MVP conversation. “That’s why I’m really never worried, because we got a guy like him back there to help make plays. And he does it every week, every week, every week, every week, and what’s understood shouldn’t have to be explained.”
After the win over the Lions, Donald slipped on an NFC West champions T-shirt and celebrated with teammates in the locker room.
A crowd of reporters waited long after the celebration wound down to ask him about his dominance, how he has wrecked so many offenses this season, and if he should win MVP.
“That’s whoever is voting,” he said. “I’m just playing my game and trying to help my team to win. Whatever happens, happens.”