Analysis

Aaron Donald rallies Rams, seals Super Bowl trip with crucial defensive play  

INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- The situation looked bleak for the Rams with just under two minutes remaining in the third quarter Sunday night. They had given up a touchdown to the respected-yet-hated 49ers to fall behind 17-7, which normally wouldn't be a case for concern, except they had already lost to San Francisco twice this season and six consecutive times over the last three years, including earlier this month, when they squandered a 17-0 lead.

With red-clad 49ers fans celebrating as if an appearance in the Super Bowl was now a fait accompli, Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald called his defensive teammates together on the sideline and spoke from a place deep in his soul. He had been transparent with the media all week, telling them a Super Bowl victory was the only thing missing from his resume. Pro Bowls? He has been to eight. All-Pro selections? He has seven. Defensive Player of the Year Awards? He has three.

The former Pitt star even has a Super Bowl appearance, having gone three years ago. But the Rams lost that game, robbing him of a chance to experience the ultimate athletic high. And now, with the sand in the game's hourglass slipping away, he felt like an opportunity to fill that void was going with it.

"We were down and out," safety Eric Weddle said. "AD rallied us. He asked us to give more. He said to let us be the reason we win this game. We knew what it meant to him."

With that, the 49ers failed to cross midfield on any of their final three possessions. The turnaround was the foundation upon which the Rams built one of the most important comebacks in the franchise's history -- and definitely the most important since it returned to Los Angeles in 2016 -- putting up points on their next three possessions for a 20-17 victory that earned them a spot in Super Bowl LVI, where they will meet the Cincinnati Bengals.

Fittingly, it was Donald who played a key role in sealing the outcome. With San Francisco needing only a field goal to force overtime, and facing third-and-13 from its 22-yard line with just over a minute to play, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo tried to throw short to running back JaMycal Hasty. However, Donald got a hand on the ball, which bounced off the hands of Hasty and into those of linebacker Travin Howard, ending the Rams' three-year skid against the 49ers and setting off a vocal celebration in SoFi Stadium, home to Super Bowl LVI.

"That's what Aaron does," said defensive coordinator Raheem Morris. "He was vocal all week about what this game meant to him. He calmed everybody down on the sideline and said to do right longer. There was no bigger moment."

From a macro standpoint, the moment was about more than one game. It was about an organizational strategy to go all-in this season, potentially jeopardizing the future for a chance at euphoria in the present. They traded two No. 1s, a third-round draft pick and former No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff to Detroit for veteran quarterback Matthew Stafford. They also sent second- and third-rounders to Denver in a midseason deal for edge rusher Von Miller, then signed wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. after he was released by Cleveland.

The goal was to win now, host the Super Bowl in their own stadium and, by extension, accelerate reintegration into the Los Angeles market. A loss to San Francisco could have been devastating in the short term, stalling momentum and any excitement generated from their personnel moves. But just when things looked bleak, the Rams fell back on the mantra coach Sean McVay likes to preach: Be at your best when your best is required.

For Stafford, that moment arrived with 1:59 remaining in the third quarter, with the Rams down 17-7. That's when he stood tallest, completing all five of his passes on a 75-yard march that culminated with his beautiful 11-yard touchdown strike to Cooper Kupp.

After a defensive stop, the Rams again put together another downfield march on the arm of Stafford, who sandwiched completions of 29 and 7 yards to Beckham Jr. around a 16-yard gain to Kupp. That set up a 40-yard field goal that tied the score with 6:53 to play. Some good fortune aided the drive, as safety Jaquiski Tartt dropped what should have been an easy interception on a deep post.

"I see (the ball) and I'm like, 'He f---ed up. We about to win this game,' " said Tartt. "It hit my hands and I thought I had it, and then I don't know how I dropped it. I didn't drop a ball in practice all week."

The Rams got another defensive stop and then drove for points on a third consecutive possession, going 49 yards in 10 plays, with the biggest being a 25-yard completion to Kupp on third-and-3 from the San Francisco 37. Los Angeles was 11 of 18 on third down, with one of the conversions leading to Matt Gay's 30-yard field goal and 20-17 lead with 1:49 to play.

"You lose games like that when you can't get off the field on third down," said safety Jimmie Ward. "That's one thing where I feel we struggled this game."

Stafford finished 31 of 45 for 337 yards and two touchdowns, with one interception. It was a gritty performance against a physical and fast opponent. The superficial extent of the physicality was clear for everyone to see when Stafford addressed the media afterward. There was blood on his uniform pants, scratches on his throwing hand and tears in his tights. Like most quality leaders, he was quick to turn the spotlight on his teammates and away from himself, praising Kupp (11 catches, 142 yards, 2 touchdowns), Beckham Jr. (nine receptions for 113 yards) and a running game that was persistent if not overly productive, with 70 yards on 29 attempts.

But all of that might have gone for naught if the defense had not made one final stand. It's unknown if Donald said anything after taking the field with a three-point lead and under two minutes to play. Then again, he didn't need to say anything. The message was clear in his eyes.

Let us be the reason we win this game.

On first down, the unit pressured Garoppolo into an incompletion. On second down, it dropped Hasty for a 3-yard loss. On third down, it pressured Garoppolo again, with Donald getting the tip that led to the decisive takeaway. According to Next Gen Stats, Donald had five quarterback pressures with one that led to a takeaway. His 20 turnovers forced by pressure ranked second in the league since 2016, according to NGS.

Donald didn't meet with the media afterward, but the truth is that he had said all he needed to say to his teammates. He was the tide that helped them raise their play, the conscience that made them look inside and find a deeper commitment.

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter.

Related Content

Purchase single game tickets for the 2022 season