How Shanahan deals with Donald wreckage in 49ers-Rams rivalry originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area
The 49ers mostly have dominated the Los Angeles Rams in recent years, but coach Kyle Shanahan remains wary of their best player — 32-year-old defensive tackle Aaron Donald.
Donald, one of three players in league history to win NFL Defensive Player of the Year three times, requires plenty of scheming for each divisional clash. He’s been known to give headaches to even the best offensive minds in football.
“You’d like to avoid him at all costs, but sometimes if you do that every single second, they know where you’re going every single play,” Shanahan told Greg Papa on NBC Sports Bay Area’s “49ers Game Plan” earlier this week. “You’ve got to balance it out; you’ve got to have a game plan versus him.
“If you don’t, he will wreck everything on his own. Think I’ve learned that the hard way my first couple years here.”
Donald was in his fourth season when Shanahan took over the 49ers’ sideline in 2017. He racked up a career-high four sacks in the Rams’ 39-10 victory over the 49ers in 2018, his second game playing against Shanahan’s scheme. The star defensive tackle hasn’t sacked the quarterback in the last four 49ers-Rams matchups, although he has six tackles for loss in those games.
So, is it best to game plan away from Donald or attack him head-on?
“We’ve got to control him the most, but it isn’t just run at him or just run away,” Shanahan told Papa. “He’s one of the best guys in the league when you run at him, just throwing people out of the way and making the play. But sometimes when he’s on the backside, he’s one of the hardest guys to cut off in the league. He can go around people or split people.
“I’ve seen him chase down a quarterback before he’s handed [the ball] off. … He’s a problem everywhere he is. You try your hardest to get two people on him.”
If the 49ers double-teamed Donald every play though, that means tight end George Kittle wouldn’t run many routes. Shanahan told Papa it’s key to strike that balance and establish it early in games against Donald.
The 2023 Rams aren’t quite built with the star power of their Super Bowl teams in the recent past. But the 49ers still are dealing with No. 99 in the Rams’ interior defensive line.