News & Analysis

Rams' Aaron Donald named PFF's 2019 Pass-Rusher of the Year

Aaron Donald wasn’t as good in 2019 as he was the year before, so people tend to dismiss just how good he was this season. His 2018 campaign was one of the greatest single defensive seasons the game has ever seen, so not being able to match that level shouldn’t count against somebody.

He didn’t chase the NFL sack record in 2019, but he was still the most dominant pass-rushing force in the game, and for the fifth-straight year, Donald wins PFF’s Best Pass-Rusher award.

Donald led all interior defenders in total pressures this past season with 80, which was 18 more than any other interior player. Players who line up inside typically generate less pressure than those that play on the edge with more space to work with and less chance of having to work through double-team blocks, so Donald being able to lead the entire league in pressure and chase the sack record a season ago was legitimately ludicrous. The baseline should be an expectation that he generates less pressure than edge rushers, and that’s what happened this year. When compared to players with comparable alignments, though, he was again far ahead of the pack.

Most pressures by interior defenders during the 2019 regular season
Player QB Pressures
1. Aaron Donald, LAR 80
2. Kenny Clark, GB 62
3. Cameron Heyward, PIT 59
4. Chris Jones, KC 58
5. Vita Vea, TB 56

We must then consider pass-rush wins that don’t generate pressure. Pass-rushers regularly beat their blocker on the play only to see the quarterback get rid of the ball before they can pressure them. Donald led the NFL in those plays this season, with 42 additional wins that never registered as any kind of pressure. If you add those to his pressure count, he had 122 total wins as a pass-rusher, which puts him back at the top of the entire league, one ahead of Za’Darius Smith, who led the league in total pressures.

Again, it’s important to underscore how improbable it is for any interior player to lead the league in pressure or pass-rushing because of the advantages edge rushers have in generating pressure. Donald saw his sack and pressure numbers fall, but a lot of that was circumstances outside of his control. And in terms of pass-rush wins, he was still the best in the league.

The next point that has to be factored into Donald’s performance is just how much extra attention he now draws, and how successful he is despite that. Donald has become the player everybody needs to neutralize on the Rams' defense, so he faces double teams on 59.6% of his pass rushes. He has the most pass rushes of any player in football (albeit not the highest percentage) when facing two or more blockers, and that’s naturally going to affect his output. 

Aaron Donald: Career PFF pass-rushing grades (ranks among all positions)
Year Pass-Rushing Snaps Pass-Rushing Grade Grade Rank
2019 576 92.8 1/229
2018 703 93.6 1/220
2017 558 94.2 1/221
2016 540 93.3 1/218
2015 537 93.0 1/221
2014 454 77.8 18/221

Despite facing so many double teams, Donald has the highest grade per rush of any interior player on double-team blocks and the sixth-highest grade per rush against double teams of any player in the NFL. The players above him are all edge rushers who not only have a better chance of generating pressure, but also are far more likely to have the extra blocker in their double team be a tight end or back as opposed to a second lineman like Donald often deals with. 

All of this goes into his PFF grade, and he ended the season with the highest PFF pass-rushing grade in the league at 92.8. That’s certainly a step down from the 93.6 he posted a season ago, but that isn’t who he is competing against to win this award. The Rams weren’t nearly as dominant as they were a year ago, and Donald didn’t have the gaudy sack numbers, but he was still the best pass-rushing force in all of football — and he rightly retains his award as such.

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