Kelly: Dolphins O-line has a tough task to protect Tua from Aaron Donald | Commentary

Omar Kelly, South Florida Sun Sentinel
·4 min read

Aaron Donald isn’t the boogeyman.

He may be the scariest defensive lineman in the NFL, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year who commands a double-team block on every play. But the Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle is human just like everyone else.

He puts on his pants one leg at a time.

He bleeds when cut... we think.

That’s the message the Miami Dolphins veteran offensive linemen have relayed to their rookie linemates who are going to be responsible for blocking Donald in Sunday’s 1 p.m. game against the Rams.

“I think we’ll all have to do our jobs and set at the same level, and kind of keep what we’ve been doing and don’t freak out when he’s over you,” said veteran offensive lineman Jesse Davis, who is holding down the left tackle spot while rookie offensive lineman Austin Jackson recovers from a foot injury that got him placed on injured reserve.

“Don’t freak out” makes sense from a instruction standpoint.

“Just play as a unit and not try to do too much or try to do too little,” said Davis, who has never played against Donald, a compact 6-foot-1, 280-pound bowling ball of muscle who consistently uses his leverage advantage to reset the line of scrimmage. “I think we’ve done a really good job of passing stuff off [to one another] and talking, and that’s what will have to be heightened this game. It will be fun, a fun matchup.”

Maybe fun for those who don’t have the responsibility of handling Donald, who has recorded 80 sacks in the 101 games he’s played since entering the NFL as a first-round pick in 2014.

Even though rookie right guard Solomon Kindley will line up across from Donald for the majority of his snaps in Sunday’s game, keeping the six-time Pro Bowler from flattening Tua Tagovailoa in his first NFL start will be everyone’s responsibility as the elite defensive tackle moves up and down the line based on the play call and his team’s strategy.

And the stakes couldn’t be any higher, considering the hip injury Tagovailoa suffered 11 months ago.

“Aaron Donald is a great player. He’s very productive, high energy, high intensity, high effort; but you see that from a lot of their guys,” Dolphins head coach Brian Flores said. “Obviously we’ll pay close attention to him.”

When it was announced that Tagovailoa would replace Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback during the bye week my initial thought wasn’t about whether the Dolphins' first of three 2020 first-round picks was ready to start an NFL game, or if the rookie was deserving.

It was the caliber of opponent, a physical Rams team that sits among the league’s best defenses in many important statistics, such as yards allowed per game and points allowed per game. And, of course, there are Donald’s sacks.

Tagovailoa hasn’t been hit since suffering his season-ending hip injury while playing for Alabama back on Nov. 16, and the thought of Donald leveling him at the end of a play is frightening.

And considering Donald averages two quarterback hits a game it’s inevitable he’ll eventually get his hands on Tagovailoa, no matter how well Miami’s rebuilt offensive line plays.

Donald is the John Randle or Reggie White of this generation, a player headed to the Hall of Fame if he stays healthy and remains on this trajectory for a couple more seasons.

“Everybody knows who he is. He does a lot of good things,” said newly installed rookie right tackle Robert Hunt, a former Louisiana-Lafayette standout who will be starting his third NFL game on Sunday. “He’s fast, he’s twitchy. He’s powerful.”

The Dolphins purposely built the offensive line big for this reason, so they wouldn’t be bullied by the power elite of the league, players such as Donald, who can wreck games by collapsing the pocket.

The hope is that Kindley and Hunt can anchor the right side of the offensive line for the next decade, playing a critical role with the responsibility for protecting Tagovailoa’s blind side since he’s a left-handed quarterback.

On Sunday that duo, and Miami’s entire offensive line, get to face their nightmare.

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