When Nick Foles was in St. Louis in 2015, he didn’t know much about Aaron Donald.
“I just remember going through practice. I didn’t really know who he was,” Foles said Thursday. “I think he was Rookie of the Year (in 2014) and it was his second year. I’m like, why can’t we block this guy? We have two guys on him and we are still not blocking him. And then years later I realized why: the dude’s unbelievable. So obviously we have to respect him, and teams have different plans for him.”
Over the last two seasons, the Bears have faced Donald twice and their plans have had varying degrees of success. Two years ago, on a cold December night in Chicago, the Bears held Donald to just two tackles and one quarterback hit. But last year, on a Sunday night at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Donald had two sacks, two tackles for loss and four quarterback hits.
Monday night, the Bears and Rams will meet in primetime for the third straight season, but this time, Foles will be the quarterback for the Bears. In an odd quirk, Donald has never sacked Foles, despite facing him in three games.
“Thanks for the motivation,” Donald said earlier this week on ESPN NFL Live, when the hosts of the show referenced that fact.
With former Bears outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley taking over as the Rams’ defensive coordinator this year, Los Angeles’ defense resembles more of a hybrid 3-4 scheme than the four-down front the Bears faced the last two years. But with versatility in the scheme, Donald appears to be lining up in his usual spots, most frequently as a three-technique over guards or in a “wide-9” outside the tackles. All five offensive linemen will see Donald Monday night, just like they did the last two seasons.
“They obviously put him where they want to put him to use him as an advantage,” Bears head coach Matt Nagy said Thursday. “I’ll just say this: this is a guy where every time you put on the tape, you can see where he’s at. Your eyes go right to him.”
To better understand the Bears’ successes and failures against Donald the last two seasons, I took that exact approach – watching all 137 snaps the two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year played in those games. Here’s what I learned:
2018: Bears 15, Rams 6
Four of the five offensive linemen were identical in both games, but in 2018, the Bears had veteran Bryan Witzmann (remember him?) playing right guard. Charles Leno Jr. was at left tackle, James Daniels (then a rookie) at left guard, Cody Whitehair at center, and Bobby Massie at right tackle.
The Bears’ plan of attack on Donald was balanced. They used double-teams or some type of combination block/chip on him for almost exactly the half the game. The other half they singled Donald, but frequently used quick passes or ran away from him to limit the risk. Mitchell Trubisky’s mobility helped, as he was able to break some big runs early in the game and use his legs to move the pocket away from Donald.
Daniels played very well in a huge rookie test and Witzmann held his own when singled on Donald on the right side. He was beat to his outside shoulder with Donald’s well-known swim move for a run stop and got beat across the face another time, but the Bears were ready with a quick pass. Donald also split Witzmann and Massie for a stop on 3rd & 2, but if you get out of a game against Donald with only three complaints on 68 snaps, you’re ecstatic.
There were two other very notable factors that contributed to the Bears’ success against Donald:
1. Jordan Howard ran for 101 yards and averaged 5.3 yards/carry, while Tarik Cohen added 69 rushing yards on just nine carries. As a team, the Bears ran for 194 yards on 35 carries. That’s the most in the Matt Nagy era.
2. The Bears never trailed after tying the game 3-3 late in the first quarter and they played with a lead for almost the entire second half. If you can run the ball successfully while playing with a second half lead, Aaron Donald’s impact is mitigated.
2019: Rams 17, Bears 7
Four of the five offensive linemen were the same in this game, but Rashaad Coward played right guard with Witzmann no longer on the team. Massie suffered an injury late in the game and was replaced by Cornelius Lucas, but that had a minimal impact on the result.
The Bears’ approach was mostly similar with quick passes and runs away from Donald, but they used even more double teams and combination blocks, which makes sense on the road. For the most part, Leno and Daniels handled Donald when he lined up to their side, with only a couple exceptions. The most notable issue was on the right side when Coward was left 1-on-1 against Donald. I counted 14 snaps in which they faced each other 1-on-1 and Donald won seven of them. 50 percent is a very high win rate for a defensive player – even Aaron Donald. These snaps accounted for two hits on Trubisky and a sack (Donald’s other sack came late in the game when Chase Daniel slid for a 1-yard loss while scrambling and wasn’t really on the offensive line).
Unlike in 2018, when they played with a lead and ran the ball well, the Bears missed multiple chances to take an early lead and instead trailed the entire game. They weren’t effective running the ball either, managing just 3.1 yards/carry on 24 rushing attempts.
Another difference: Remember Trubisky’s mysterious hip issue in Los Angeles? He wasn’t nearly as mobile, limiting him to just one rush for four yards and preventing him from eluding the rush like he did in 2018.
So what about 2020?
At least there isn’t a crowd to deal with, because on paper, Monday’s matchup against Donald is scary. Coward didn’t keep his starting job after last season, but started at left guard last week as Daniels was lost for the season. Considering Daniels’ success against Donald and Coward’s struggles, that’s worrisome. Germain Ifedi is now at right guard and he’s used to seeing Donald in the NFC West, but he played right tackle for the Seahawks so it will be different.
Perhaps Nagy will opt to use Alex Bars instead of Coward, which wouldn’t be a bad idea, but that’s still a second-year player with only 44 career offensive snaps against the best defensive player in the game.
Foles doesn’t have the same mobility as Trubisky, but he currently ranks fourth in the NFL at getting rid of the ball quickly, at just 2.49 seconds. Expect plenty of quick passes and perhaps more no-huddle, which would be especially smart in the rare sequences where Donald comes out of the game.
“I think you just have to get on him early before he gets going,” Whitehair said. “Obviously play physical with him and try to shut him down. And that's going to be our game plan. You know he can be a game-wrecker and you gotta account for him in every way you can.”
It would certainly help if the Bears can grab and early lead and find a way to run the football. They averaged 138 rushing yards/game in their first three games, but only 42 rushing yards per game over their last three, with Daniels out for half of that time.
Needless to say, this isn’t exactly the best time for the Bears to be facing the most dangerous defensive weapon in the NFL.