LOS ANGELES — As the stalemate continued through July and August and into September, the nightmarish possibility loomed like a dark cloud over the franchise, dominating every conversation and begging the one lingering question the Rams hoped they’d never have to confront.
What would the defense look like without Aaron Donald?
Turns out, a whole lot better than you might think.
By the time Donald’s months-long holdout saga came to its official conclusion Saturday, it was too late for the two-time All-Pro to join the Rams for their season opener. But against a hapless Colts offense, the team wouldn’t actually need its dominant man in the middle. It may not have needed a starting defense, period.
With their best defensive player unavailable and Colts starting quarterback Andrew Luck on the shelf, the Rams unleashed perhaps their most dominant defensive effort since moving back to Los Angeles. When their 46-9 beating of the Colts came to a merciful end, the Rams had returned two interceptions for touchdowns, forced a safety, stripped a pair of fumbles, stopped the Colts on all 10 of their third-down tries and sacked backup quarterback Scott Tolzien five times, leaving the Colts no choice but to bench him — possibly for his own safety.
“We just tried to go out there and set the tone,” cornerback Trumaine Johnson said.
That mission was accomplished after just three plays, when Johnson saw a bad pass from Tolzien floating in his direction. The Rams’ top corner, who found himself in his own contract fight this offseason, reeled in the interception with ease, taking it 39 yards to the house for the Rams’ first score of the season.
Ten minutes later, Johnson delivered another tone-setter. As Pro Bowl wideout T.Y. Hilton tried to dance his way to a first down, Johnson ripped the ball out of his hands and recovered the fumble himself. The Colts never recovered from there.
The Rams defense made statement after statement from thereon out, adding another pick-six — from safety Lamarcus Joyner — in the third quarter, while brutalizing Tolzien with constant blitzes in between.
Even without Donald, the defensive line consistently created pressure using an anonymous interior rotation of Tyrunn Walker, Ethan Westbrooks, Morgan Fox, and sixth-round rookie Tanzel Smart. That quartet boasted just 15 combined NFL starts between them before Sunday afternoon.
Walker didn’t even find out he would be starting until Sunday morning, but as new coordinator…