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How Aaron Donald may have single-handedly kept the Seahawks from having a 2010s dynasty

Yes, really.

Los Angeles Rams v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Otto Greule Jr /Getty Images

Prior to drafting Greg Robinson in the 2014 NFL Draft, the Rams had lost 16 of their previous 18 games against the Seattle Seahawks. It was a complete turnaround from their first 14 franchise games against the Seahawks, when they had gone 10-4 vs Seattle amid stops in both Los Angeles and St. Louis, including a 27-20 wild card win in the 2004 playoffs.

The Seahawks would go to the Super Bowl the next year and then won the Super Bowl in 2013, bookending their remarkable dominance over a division rival with the most successful seasons in team history. But when the Rams found themselves in a Jeff Fisher-sized hole in the 2014 draft, they selected Robinson second overall, sandwiched by Jadeveon Clowney and Blake Bortles.

Thank God the Rams also had pick 13.

The last reward remaining for not drafting Robert Griffin III, Trent Richardson or Matt Kalil in 2012, St. Louis chose Robinson as their left tackle of the future rather than Bortles, Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, Jake Matthews or Khalil Mack. But despite how the picture looks today, Robinson was an elite prospect and he suffered a similar fate as countless others who came before him: he just wasn’t as good as advertised.

Aaron Donald also wasn’t as good as advertised. If Aaron Donald was as good as advertised, he’d be playing for the Houston Texans. Or he’d be playing for the Rams after they had traded both 2 and 13 and at least one more future first rounder to acquire the number one pick. But more than likely he’d be the J.J. Watt teammate that they dreamed Clowney would become.

Headed for his sixth first team all-pro honor this season, Donald debuted in Week 1 of the 2014 season with two tackles for a loss against the Minnesota Vikings. In Week 2, he recorded his first sack. That would be Donald’s only sack over his first five games but then he had the biggest game of his young career at that point, a home game against the defending champion Seahawks.

Despite being 7-point underdogs at home, the Rams had a 21-3 lead midway through the second quarter and won the game 28-26 without ever giving Wilson an opportunity to take the lead in the fourth quarter. Seattle’s first play on offense was a one-yard run by Marshawn Lynch that was stuffed by Donald. In the second quarter, leading 14-3, Donald sacked Wilson on first and 10 at the Rams 38, setting up an unlikely punt that was returned 90 yards for a touchdown by Stedman Bailey.

As halftime approached, the Seahawks had second and Goal at the Rams 12, but Donald tackled Lynch for a five-yard loss, forcing them to kick a field goal rather than score a touchdown. Those points helped St. Louis get the ultimate advantage.

Donald also stuffed Lynch for a one-yard loss on the first play of the second half. He finished with five tackles, three for a loss, two QB hits and a sack in the first of many victories against Seattle.

And when the two teams met again in Week 17, the first play of the game was a Lynch run for zero yards, stopped by Donald. Though the Seahawks would reach the Super Bowl again in 2014, let’s not dismiss the psychological impact that Donald has had on Pete Carroll, Wilson and the franchise over the last six years. Enough to question handing the ball to Lynch when you only need one yard?

Later in that same game, Donald would get his first strip sack on Wilson, though Seattle did recover it and win the game 20-6. Donald was nevertheless dominant and that’s been true in every game against Wilson.

In Week 1 of the 2015 season, Donald sacked Wilson two times and had three tackles for a loss in the Rams’ 34-31 upset victory against the Seahawks. When Seattle had first and 10 at the Rams 29 in the first quarter, Donald sacked Wilson and Seattle ended up punting on the drive. In the second quarter, Donald stuffed Lynch for another loss of two.

Then in the third quarter, leading 17-13, Donald sacked Wilson on third and 8, forcing a punt. For the second time in three games, a Donald sack setup a punt return touchdown for the Rams, this one going for 75 yards by Tavon Austin.

When Nick Foles helped force overtime with a 37-yard touchdown strike to Lance Kendricks and then took a three-point lead in the extra period, Seattle had another chance to win the game. But on fourth and 1 from the Rams 42, Donald and Michael Brockers combined to stuff Lynch for a loss of one, ending the game and sealing his second win over the Seahawks in three tries.

Donald said after the game that they were ready for that play all week.

Without Donald, the Rams could have easily gone 0-3 in this three games. St. Louis then also won the Week 16 rematch even though Case Keenum was now the starter at quarterback. Donald added a five-yard tackle for a loss in this 23-17 victory that wasn’t that close.

Had it not been for Donald, could the Seahawks have gone 12-4 in 2015 instead of 10-6? That record would not have won the NFC West (the Cardinals went 13-3) but it would have changed their path in the playoffs and potentially could have sent them to Arizona instead of Carolina in the divisional round.

Seattle obliterated Arizona in the regular season finale.

Flash forward to 2016 and on the Seahawks’ second play from scrimmage, it’s same play, different back. Donald stuffs Thomas Rawls for a loss of nine and forces an early punt. On the next drive, he stuffed Wilson for a loss of two on a rush up the middle. Then he stuffed Rawls again as Seattle was driving towards the end zone, eventually forcing a field goal.

Despite what ESPN’s analytics department wants to tell you, Aaron Donald’s run defense and what the Rams have been able to do against the Seahawks’ rushing attack over the series is a major reason why they’ve dominated Seattle from two different cities.

The Rams won that game 9-3.

The Seahawks won the rematch but had they gone 11-4-1 instead of 10-5-1, Seattle would have bypassed the wild card round and earned the number two seed in the NFC. Instead, they hosted the Lions in a wild card game (an easy victory) but then lost 36-20 to the Falcons in a game they never stood a chance in. Perhaps they would have if the homefields were flipped, but Donald made sure that didn’t happen.

Credit

The top seed in the NFC was the Dallas Cowboys and they were bounced in the same divisional round by the Green Bay Packers. If the Seahawks had managed to win the two-seed, they could have easily been hosting someone in the NFC Championship game.

Moving ahead to 2017, the Seahawks missed the playoffs for the only time in Wilson’s career and winning one more game probably wouldn’t have changed that. Seattle went 9-7 and while 10-6 would have tied them with wild card Atlanta, the Falcons beat them that season and had the tiebreaker. Seattle would have needed more than going 2-0 against LA to make the postseason.

However ... At 8-5 headed into Week 15, the Seahawks knew they were in a must-win situation over the final three games. The answer: the worst game by Seattle in the Russell Wilson era.

Donald finished the game with five tackles, four QB hits, one forced fumble, two tackles for a loss and three sacks. The Rams won the game 42-7 and it was only the second time that Wilson had been blown out by any team during his regular season NFL career up to that point. That game shocked the Seahawks and Wilson into disbelief and he was sacked seven times with two fumbles.

In that game, he sacked Wilson on a play in which Duane Brown was even called for holding; he sacked him for a 16-yard loss that resulted in a fumble; he sacked him on Seattle’s second play of the second half, right when they thought they were going to make an incredible comeback probably.

No comebacks.

Of course, Los Angeles would go on to win the division in 2017 and then would do so again by going 13-3 in 2018. The Rams swept the Seahawks that season, with Donald posting 3.5 sacks, six QB hits and four tackles for a loss in the two victories; two losses would have meant that Seattle wins the NFC West in 2018 and probably keeps the Rams from reaching the Super Bowl. The final scores in those games were 33-31 and 36-31, so I think it’s safe to assume that an elite player like Donald proves to be a difference in those results.

Rather than getting a bye week and a top seed, the Seahawks went on the road to face the Cowboys in the wild card round, losing 24-22.

Finally, last season the Rams were disappointed by their 9-7 record but where would they have been without Aaron Donald? Seattle won the first meeting 30-29 when Greg Zuerlein missed a 44-yard field goal attempt and they were 10-2 going into Week 14’s rematch in Los Angeles on Sunday Night Football.

A win that night would have made the Seahawks 11-2 and put them in position to be the top seed in the NFC with three games to play.

Was the first play of the game a one-yard run stopped by Donald?

No.

It was a one-yard run stopped by Donald and also Seattle was called for illegal formation, resulting in a five-yard penalty.

With a 21-9 Rams lead late in the third quarter, Donald sacked Wilson for an 11-yard loss as the Seahawks were driving into LA territory for the first time since early in the second quarter. Seattle had to punt. Wanting to put Wilson to bed early, Donald sacked him again with 3:06 remaining, forcing the Seahawks to burn a timeout.

The Rams won 28-12.

The Seahawks lost three of their last four games and were again forced to be a wild card instead of a division winner with a bye week. Every time Seattle has gotten a bye week, they’ve reached the Super Bowl.

Since Donald has entered the league, he may have been responsible for keeping the Seahawks in the wild card round at least two times, maybe three. He has posted 12 sacks in 12 games. He has also had 51 tackles, 19 tackles for a loss, 33 QB hits, two passes defensed and two forced fumbles. He has at least one sack in seven contests, at least one tackle for a loss in 11 contests and at least one QB hit in all 12 contests.

Did I mention that Wilson is good? Not when Aaron Donald is around.

Though Wilson has 10 touchdowns and one interception against the Rams over the previous two seasons, LA is 3-1 in those games and Wilson has been sacked 12 times with two fumbles and Seattle is lucky to not be winless in those games. The last time the Seahawks had a convincing win against the Rams was December 15, 2016.

That’s an issue for a team that is considered to be among the best in the NFL.

Wilson has never won two games in a row against Donald; Donald has four times won “back to back games” against Wilson and twice won three in a row. “DT Winz”? I dare the first person to step up and say that Aaron Donald doesn’t deserve the most credit for the Rams going 8-4 against the Seahawks since 2014.

I’m certainly not going to give it to Greg Robinson.