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Super Bowl LIII defenses: Rams' Aaron Donald is the game's top disrupter

Los Angeles' defensive line is dangerous, but the Patriots possess most of this Super Bowl's top defensive backfield talent.

Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald led the NFL

Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald led the NFL with 20.5 sacks during the regular season. Photo Credit: Getty Images/Christian Petersen

One year removed from one of the highest-scoring Super Bowls in history, it might be easy to neglect what the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams bring to the table on defense.

That would be unwise. Although neither participant in Super Bowl LIII, which takes place Sunday in Atlanta, is a defensive juggernaut, both teams possess top-end talent on that side of the ball.

In terms of game-changing individuals, nobody fits the bill better than Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald. The four-time All-Pro first-team selection finished the regular season with 20.5 sacks, 4.5 more than the next highest tally in the league. Nearly half of his tackles this season went for a loss. 

Donald clearly benefited from the offseason acquisition of Ndamukong Suh. The presence of the nine-year veteran and three-time All-Pro selection next to Donald forces defenses to pick their poison. Although not a sack machine, Suh effectively bottles up the run as well as any nose tackle in football. He's certainly capable of making things tough on quarterbacks as well; Suh registered 1.5 sacks on the New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees in the NFC Championship Game.

Despite the presence of these dominant defensive linemen, Los Angeles was merely a middle of the pack team in terms of quarterback sacks. The Rams' 41 for the season — exactly half by Donald — ranked 15th in the NFL. They also haven't done well against the run, surrendering 122.3 yards per game (23rd in the league).

The Pats aren't much more impressive, tied for 30th with 30 sacks despite the presence of talented defensive linemen Trey Flowers and Lawrence Guy. While their 112.7 rushing yards allowed per game ranks 11th, they aren't known for bottling up talented rushers like the Rams' potent tandem of Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson.

But, while the Rams might be less than the sum of their parts on defense, New England excels where it matters most. They surrendered 20.3 points per game, the seventh-fewest in the league this season. The Rams' 24 points allowed per game put them in the bottom half of the league.

Whereas the Rams are strongest up front, the Patriots defensive backs are the key to their success. Led by All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore, New England tied for third (with the Rams) in the NFL with 18 interceptions as a team. The McCourty brothers Devin and Jason, safety and cornerback respectively, also are capable contributors. Safety Patrick Chung has played in four Super Bowls with the Pats.

Los Angeles' secondary isn't quite as rife with talent or big-game experience, but they're a solid collective. Strong safety John Johnson registered four interceptions this year, emerging as perhaps the team's best player in the defensive backfield. Cornerback Marcus Peters picked off three passes in his first year with the team but hasn't played at his All-Pro level of 2016. 

Neither linebacker group is exceptional. The Rams' Dante Fowler Jr., as a 3-4 edge rusher, has played well in the playoffs with 1.5 sacks in two games. Outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy led the Patriots with 92 tackles but isn't a major threat to disrupt the Rams' offense. With the possible exception of Fowler, it's unlikely a linebacker on either team is in the running for Super Bowl MVP.

Super Bowl defensive linemen by the numbers

Includes 2018 regular-season and postseason stats

Trey Flowers (Patriots)
NFL seasons: 4
Games: 17
Tackles: 60
Sacks: 9.5
Tackles for loss: 11
Fumbles forced: 3

Aaron Donald (Rams)
NFL seasons: 5
Games: 18
Tackles: 63
Sacks: 21
Tackles for loss: 28
Fumbles forced: 4


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