Los Angeles Rams still have chance to win NFC West because of 'special player' Aaron Donald
GLENDALE, Ariz. — Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay had a colorful reaction when he was first notified four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Jalen Ramsey and starting tight end Tyler Higbee tested positive for COVID-19.
"You got to be (expletive) me," McVay said prior to Monday night's showdown versus the Arizona Cardinals.
Both were subsequently placed on the NFL’s Reserve/COVID-19 list just hours before kickoff. They joined running back Darrell Henderson, right tackle Rob Havenstein and cornerback Donte Deayon, who were all placed on the list leading up to the Week 14 matchup.
Little did McVay know, more players would test positive for COVID-19 in the aftermath of Monday's win. The Rams placed seven players on the NFL's Reserve/COVID-19 list Tuesday and entered the NFL’s intensive protocols.
A day before the Rams' internal outbreak, they faced a Cardinals team that manhandled them Week 4. The Rams were forced to play without Ramsey, arguably their second-best player, and Arizona entered as the favorite with a chance to clinch its first playoff berth since 2015. The Cardinals also had the opportunity to sweep the Rams for the first time since 2014.
However, the Ramsey-less Rams had other ideas.
Despite being undermanned on the road, the Rams got revenge with a 30-23 victory and pulled within one game of the NFC West lead. They got major contributions from their healthy stars at State Farm Stadium.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford had one of his best games in a Rams uniform. He totaled 287 passing yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
Cooper Kupp evaded coverage all night. He produced a career-high 13 catches for 123 yards and a touchdown, while fellow receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who tested positive for COVID-19 Tuesday, made timely catches in crucial moments. He tallied six receptions for 77 yards and a touchdown.
Yet, the brightest star was Los Angeles’ best overall player – defensive tackle Aaron Donald.
Donald told Ramsey the team was going to “hold it down for him” prior to the contest, and the standout defensive lineman made sure the club delivered.
“I felt good. I definitely felt good and had some one-on-one opportunities and took advantage of them,” Donald said. “When I get the one-on-ones, I have to take advantage of that.”
Donald had the advantage throughout four quarters. He bookended the game with two sacks.
The first play from scrimmage Monday night was emblematic of how the game transpired. Donald bull rushed his way to Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray and sacked him for a six-yard loss.
The three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year was a terror for Arizona’s offensive line. He amassed five tackles, three sacks and a pass deflection that led to an interception.
His third and final sack sealed the victory for the Rams.
“He’s a special player. He’s a great teammate and leader on the defense,” Stafford said of Donald postgame. “He goes out there and plays, and plays at a high level. First snap of the game to the last snap of the game, the guy is affecting the game in a positive way for our team. He covers up a lot of stuff for us on defense and makes big-time plays when we need him. That’s what a great player is and he definitely is that.”
It was the type of dominant performance that should award Donald NFL Defensive Player of the Week. More importantly, though, the Rams (9-4) are in the No. 5 position in the NFC playoff race and are just one game back of the Cardinals (10-3) for first place in the division.
The Rams are in the midst of COVID-19 outbreak they need to resolve, but their most valuable player is healthy thus far — and he just so happens to be the best defensive player in football.
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“You’re grateful. That’s what the best do. They play their best when the best is required,” McVay said of Donald. “This guy is the epitome of competitive greatness. I’m really proud of Aaron. I’m not at all surprised. He’s a special player and a special person. You felt his presence from the very first snap until the last one. If he doesn’t win defensive player of the week, something is wrong.”