Vikings

Is Aaron Donald A Regime-Ender?

Photo Credit: Gary A. Vasquez (USA TODAY Sports)

The term “game wrecker” probably gets thrown around too loosely whenever there’s a disruptive defender on the offense’s scouting report. But Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald is every bit of that and more.

The winner of three of the past four NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards and first-team All-Pro for six consecutive seasons, Donald is the Minnesota Vikings’ biggest individual matchup nightmare on the planet. As we — and the entire football world — saw on Monday night against defensive tackle Akiem Hicks and the Chicago Bears’ front-4, Minnesota’s offensive line won’t be mistaken for a strength of this team any time soon. Donald’s arrival in Week 16 is bad news for a franchise holding on for dear life.

Against Chicago on Monday, both right guard Mason Cole and first-round rookie left tackle Christian Darrisaw had their work cut for them out against Hicks and edge rusher Robert Quinn.

Darrisaw’s struggles against one of the game’s best pass rushers are understandable, considering he just played the eighth game of his rookie season. But, in general, his matchups against the best pass rushers that the NFL has to offer haven’t exactly gone his way. Thus far, Preston Smith of the Green Bay Packers, Randy Gregory of the Dallas Cowboys, Nick Bosa of the San Francisco 49ers, and Quinn of the Bears have combined for five sacks and 14 pressures against the Vikings rookie. The Rams expect Floyd to win this matchup, like the other veteran pass rushers who squared off against Darrisaw this season. The Vikings desperately need Darrisaw to hold up against the Rams, particularly on third-and-long and obvious passing situations.

And while Darrisaw has the luxury of time to continue his development, the same can’t be said for the front office that drafted him or the head coach he plays for.

Next, we have Cole, who Hicks and Chicago’s front simply dominated. On Monday, Cole allowed a season-high six pressures and two sacks against Hicks and the Bears. What’s worse, Cole is responsible for 16 pressures over the past five games.

And in Week 16 inside US Bank Stadium, he’ll be the only thing standing in the way between Donald and Kirk Cousins.

When looking at the Vikings’ pass blocking as a whole, they’ve been one of the worst units in the entire NFL throughout the season. According to Pro Football Focus, the Vikings have one of the lowest sets of grades amongst their top seven linemen in True Pass Sets. As PFF defines it, it “excludes plays with less than four rushers, play action, screens, short dropbacks, and time-to-throws under two seconds.” Essentially it just means a traditional dropback passing attempt.

Because of Minnesota’s struggles in keeping a calm pocket for their quarterback, Cousins has no choice but to get the ball out faster than 99% of Vikings fans would like. Especially when there’s no run-game threat — like on third-and-long.

Speaking of which, let’s take it back to the first half against the Bears on Monday. Facing a 3rd and 10 from inside the red zone, Cousins takes a sack instead of getting the ball out to K.J. Osborn below the sticks — a throw he has made all season, much to the chagrin of Skoldiers everywhere.

Cousins is in the ultimate damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation behind this offensive line this season. If he continues to throw in front of the sticks on critical downs, the pitchfork brigade gets riled up. And if he holds on to the ball longer than his internal clock tells him to, the pressure gets home. It’ll be up to Klint Kubiak to do a much better job of manufacturing alternative pockets for Cousins by rolling him out and forcing Los Angeles to honor the run threat with play-action.

If Minnesota struggles to establish the run game against Donald and the Rams, an elementary rollout from the gun is always a high-percentage throw. The Kansas City Chiefs — and Simley Spartans in Inver Grove Heights — routinely roll their quarterbacks out and attack the perimeter of the defense with these “Celtic” or “Stretch” concepts for the isolated receiver.

This season, Brian O’Neill has been outstanding holding down the edge at right tackle. He hasn’t allowed a sack all year and has only one pressure over the past four games. But an offensive line is similar to a defensive backfield in the sense that you’re only as good as your weakest link. And right now, for the Vikings, Cole and Darrisaw will need to display significant improvement against the Rams’ front — which just so happens to be PFF’s highest-graded pass-rushing unit in the NFL with a grade of 84.2.

If Donald plays like his usual self against the Vikings and dominates Cole in Week 16, not only would it wreck the game and possibly the season for Minnesota. It could potentially be the final nail in the coffin for the front office, head coach, and/or quarterback in this particular era of Vikings football.

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