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Rams set to face rare defensive lineman better than Aaron Donald in 2023

Has Dexter Lawrence passed Aaron Donald as NFL’s top interior defensive lineman?

Green Bay Packers v New York Giants Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

Aaron Donald has been an elite interior defensive lineman since the day he stepped out onto an NFL field for the first time in 2014. He’s set the gold standard at his position with his consistently outstanding play for the Los Angeles Rams, and his production as a pass rusher rivals even the top edge defenders year in and year out.

For maybe the first time in Donald’s career, there’s a legitimate threat to his thrown in the New York Giants’ Dexter Lawrence. New York selected Lawrence with the 17th pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. His first three years with the Giants were solid, and then the interior lineman took his game to new heights last season and earned his first “elite” grade from Pro Football Focus (PFF). Lawrence has maintained that stellar level of performance through 2023 (92.8 defensive grade) and is edging out Donald (90.3) in terms of PFF’s grading.

Two of the best defensive lineman in the NFL will face off in Week 17 when the Rams travel to New York to take on the Giants—and that’s unfortunate news for opposing quarterbacks Matthew Stafford and Tyrod Taylor.

Both Donald and Lawrence have been game wreckers in terms of pass rush. They have relatively the same PFF pass rushing grades at 91.3 and 92.5, respectively. Donald has accumulated 78 total pressures and Lawrence has 60 but has played one fewer game and 629 snaps compared to Donald’s 801.

The difference in 2023 has come in the run game, and at least according to PFF Lawrence has been head and shoulders better than Donald in that facet this year. Donald has earned the lowest run defense mark of his historic career this season at 68.3. Maybe more concerning is the fact he’s been elite in this category until last season when he earned a grade of 75.6, so it’s possible he’s declining in this area of the game as he grows older. Donald has 29 run “stops”.

On the flip side Lawrence is having his best season as a run defender (87.5) and ranks only behind his New York counterpart, Quinnen Williams, amongst interior defensive linemen. Williams has not been as productive as Donald or Lawrence in the pass rushing department.

Fortunately for the Rams and running back Kyren Williams—and while Lawrence has been spectacular at defending the run this season—the other Giants defensive linemen have not played well in this facet. Former Ram A’Shawn Robinson has not lived up to his potential and has a lowly run grade of 59.7 according to PFF.

This weekend’s game is of the upmost importance to the Rams and their playoff hopes. While Tyrod Taylor and the Giants offense may not seem like a daunting matchup, New York would love to play spoiler and knock LA out of the NFC playoff picture. The Rams need Donald to step up in a big way and keep Taylor under wraps. On offense they need to slow down Lawrence, keep Matthew Stafford upright, and open running lanes for Kyren Williams.

Will the Rams take care of business on Sunday afternoon in New York?