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Rams-Patriots preview: Key matchup is Aaron Donald vs NE’s strengths up the middle

It’s power-vs-power with Donald attempting to disrupt Bill Belichick’s offense

NFL: Super Bowl LIII-New England Patriots vs Los Angeles Rams Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Nearly every picture I could find of Aaron Donald against the New England Patriots somehow involved Tom Brady. As you know, Thursday’s game between the Patriots and LA Rams will not involve Brady. However, that’s not really the matchup that we are concerned with when it comes to Donald and New England.

The focus instead is Donald against center David Andrews and guards Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason. Those were the same three interior linemen who held Donald without a sack over his 68 snaps that day (and 36 dropbacks by Brady) and the same who will be working to protect Cam Newton and open up opportunities for running back Damien Harris on Thursday at SoFi Stadium.

Sony Michel had 18 carries for 94 yards and Rex Burkhead had seven for 43 in Super Bowl LIII.

This season, Harris leads the Patriots with 641 rushing yards on 126 attempts, averaging 5.1 yards per carry. According to SportsInfoSolutions, Harris has had 44 of those attempts go up the middle and he’s averaging 6.3 YPC on those runs; only Aaron Jones and Miles Sanders are doing better.

Burkhead tore his ACL and went to injured reserve, but was averaging 4.3 YPC up the middle. Michel returned on Sunday in the Pats’ 45-0 win over the Chargers but on the season is averaging 3.2 YPC up the middle, albeit on only 14 attempts. Michel averaged 3.9 YPC up the middle in 2019.

Bill Belichick tends to be averse to paying players large sums of money, but the Patriots gave Thuney the franchise tag in 2020, guaranteeing him a $14.7 million salary to stick around while they figure out if they can keep him long-term.

Andrews is in the final year of a four-year contract and it will not be surprising if he becomes New England’s next franchise player.

Mason one was of the few that Belichick was comfortable extending, giving him a five-year, $45 million contract in 2018. He is set to be the team’s fourth-highest paid player in 2021, but he could easily move up that list if the team opts to save money with one of the three ahead of him. It is improbable that they’d part with Mason for a number of reasons, one of which being that he could be their best all-around player.

Speaking of which, that leads me back to Donald.

I’ve spent plenty of this season hyping up Donald as an MVP candidate and the only person who has done anything to dissuade me from giving my non-existent vote to him is Patrick Mahomes. Donald has posted 11 sacks and 22 QB hits in 12 games and doing so while seeing far more double-teams and triple-teams than holding penalties against the offensive linemen “blocking” him than he deserves.

What’s important on Thursday may not be penalties though, but purely best-against-best. Strength-against-strength.

Newton isn’t likely to be sacked often on Thursday because Newton isn’t likely to be in position for sacks often. He’s thrown only 37 attempts over the last two games combined and completed 21 of those passes; in those same two games, he’s run the ball 23 times. Newton and the Patriots will focus more on running the ball probably and despite what “fake numbers folks” tried to tell you before the season started, I plenty trust Donald against the run.

It so happens this will be one of his biggest tests in that respect and I expect him to have an MVP-caliber performance because he’s an MVP-caliber player.