LOS ANGELES — Aaron Donald burst through the line, loose in the backfield for the first time since his months-long holdout ended, and immediately, the All-Pro defensive tackle knew what was coming.
But it was too late. Kirk Cousins tossed left, just barely out of Donald’s reach. Washington running back Chris Thompson corralled the toss and found the edge, zooming 7 yards for a touchdown. Donald, by just a split-second’s margin, was left out of the play.
The return of one of the NFL’s best interior defenders was expected to solidify a Rams defensive front that looked elite without him in their Week 1 domination of the Colts. Instead, for the majority of Sunday’s 27-20 loss to Washington, Donald did not look like his dominant self, and neither did the Rams defense, which was steamrolled for 229 yards on the ground.
Perhaps it might have been different if Donald had burst through that line just a moment sooner, intercepted the toss and taken it the distance. But from his locker, following his first game action since last January, Donald offered no excuses for his poor play.
“I just have to be better,” Donald said.
Donald returned to practice early last week, after missing the entirety of the team’s offseason program. All week long, coaches treaded lightly when asked about how much he would play in his first live action of the season. But Donald would brush off suggestions that he was rusty in his return. Fatigue-wise, he said, he felt good.
But this was not the Donald the Rams were hoping to get on Sunday, and it wasn’t the type of performance the team would expect from a player who spent months demanding he be paid like the best defensive player in the league.
All game, Washington tempted Donald with one-on-one matchups — the exact circumstances in which he’s often at his best. But the gamble worked in Washington’s favor. Donald struggled to get off blocks, especially when matched up against right tackle Morgan Moses. As three Washington backs each ran for 67 yards or more, Donald was mostly a non-factor. He finished with two tackles, one for loss, but was quiet for long stretches.
“I have to play a lot better to help my team when we’re trying to pull out close games like this,” Donald said. “I had one-on-ones, and I usually win those. That’s on me.”
The rest of the Rams defense should share in some of that blame, of course. From the start, the front seven seemed out of sorts. After allowing just 75 rushing yards in…