INDIANAPOLIS – They’re “star’’ players in more ways than one.
Yes, they’ve got multiple All-Pro and Pro Bowl designations in their bios, and one has the distinction of being one of three players in NFL history with three Defensive Player of the Year honors as well.
And that undeniable star status is the reason there’s a second “star’’ when mentioning DeForest Buckner or Aaron Donald.
That guy is one who commands attention when offensive coordinators draw up game plans for the next game. And the next game in question is Buckner’s Indianapolis Colts vs. Donald’s Los Angeles Rams Sunday in Lucas Oil Stadium.
“He’s got to be the guy that people put a star on when they talk about our defense and say, ‘Okay, we’ve got to have an answer for this guy,’’’ Colts’ defensive line coach Brian Baker said of his guy, Buckner.
Have an answer for Buckner or Donald, or else.
Sunday, it’ll be virtually impossible not to notice the presences of Buckner, Indy’s tip-of-the-spear 3-technique tackle, and Donald, his Rams’ domineering counterpart.
Donald certainly has been foremost in the discussion whenever the Colts’ offense has gathered this week, and quarterback Carson Wentz won’t need a tracking device Sunday to find him.
“You’re always aware of him,’’ he said. “Anytime you play a dominant d-lineman like he is, I mean everybody knows how good he is. So you have to be aware of him.’’
Since being selected 13th overall by the Rams in the 2014 draft, Donald has been a relentless force. Last season he joined Lawrence Taylor and J.J. Watt as the NFL’s only three-time Defensive Players of the Year (2020, ’18, ’17), and he’s piled up 86.5 sacks, 202 quarterback hits and 132 tackles for loss in eight-plus seasons and 111 games.
In ’18, Donald generated 20.5 sack, 41 quarterback hits and 25 tackles for loss, all ridiculous numbers for a defensive tackle.
“We never say we fear anybody,’’ Wentz said, “but we’re aware, and we know where he’s at, and that factors into the game plan a little bit.
“He’s a great player, and we’ve got to take care of him.’’
That means frequent double teams by the guard and tackle, or guard and center if Donald pinches more inside. It means providing him as few one-on-one opportunities as possible while trying to get things done on offense, and the Rams make it more difficult by flipping him from side to side.
“Just like any other team, you figure out what their strengths are, and obviously he’s one of their strengths on defense,’’ offensive coordinator Marcus Brady said. “You try to game plan around it where potentially you try to get some double teams when you can.
“Sometimes the front calls it where you can’t, but you try to as much as you can.’’
In the Rams’ opening 34-14 win over Chicago, the Bears limited Donald’s numbers, but not his impact. He was credited with three tackles and one sack.
The lone sack came in the fourth quarter with the Rams in full pressure mode. Donald used his quick burst and effective hand fighting to slip inside of Bears’ left guard Cody Whitehair and chase down Andy Dalton.
A few plays earlier, Donald again shrugged off Whitehair and got to Dalton. He was unable to finish the play but earned an assist as linebacker Justin Hollins got his second sack of the game.
The Colts’ offense was given a long glimpse of the disruptive effect of an elite defensive tackle during training camp. Every day, it had to deal with Buckner.
Even without that daily exposure to Buckner in Westfield, the offense understands what’s ahead with Donald.
“Yeah,’’ Brady said with a smile, “I’m pretty sure that they know what that guy can do.’’
Similarly, the Rams realize the threat posed by Buckner. They faced him twice a year from 2016-19 when he anchored the middle of the San Francisco 49ers defensive line.
Whenever the opportunity presents itself, Buckner takes time to peruse Donald.
“Every time the Rams play I watch Aaron,’’ he said. “He’s a force. He’s a one-man wrecking crew, and you definitely have to know where he is at all times.’’
As dominant as Donald is, Buckner has elevated his game to a similar level.
Since being selected 7th overall by the 49ers in 2016, he has more tackles (326) and solos (207) than any d-tackle. His 39 sacks rank third behind Donald (66.5) and Kansas City’s Chris Jones (42.5), and his 49 tackles for loss was second to Donald’s 92.
Buckner was a second-team All-Pro selection in 2019 and joined Donald as first-team All-Pros last season.
They’re the perfect example of elite players at the same position – who wear the same No. 99 – coming from disparate molds. Buckner is 6’7″, 295 pounds. Donald is 6’1″, 280.
“We’re different builds, you know what I mean?’’ Buckner said. “He has different skillsets and little things like that. I look at certain things obviously that he does, and I’m like, ‘Let me try and do some things.’
“I try to do that with all types of players. I look at their game and see what I can kind of grasp from them, and if it works, it does. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.’’
Buckner was asked if he’s motivated by Donald’s individual achievements – the three Defensive Player of the Year nods, being named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 2000s despite starting his career in ’14, the seven Pro Bowls and the All-Pro selections in each of the last six seasons.
“I’m trying to chase my own end result,’’ he said. “Last year I played pretty well. I want to be better this year obviously.
“I’m chasing my own. I’m not chasing anybody else.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.