Steelers' Primary Task: Block The Donald

Former Pitt Panther Aaron Donald is keeping the Steelers coaching staff up at night.

Next up for the Pittsburgh Steelers are the schizophrenic St. Louis Rams, who knocked off the defending NFC champion Seattle Seahawks in the opener but lost to the hapless Washington Redskins last Sunday.

Sounds a lot like the schizophrenic Steelers of 2014, except that Tomlin has a logical explanation for the Rams.

"Game location might've had something to do with it," Tomlin said of a Rams team that plays its home games in a dome stadium with which he's familiar.

"I've been in their place a bunch over the years," he said. "It's a special environment. Back when I came into the league as a young defensive coach you had to deal with 'The Greatest Show on Turf' and the things their offense was able to do in that environment."

Tomlin was the Tampa Bay secondary coach from 2001 to 2005. During the Rams' last Super Bowl season in 2001, the Bucs went to St. Louis and upset the Rams, 24-17.

Tomlin's next visit didn't go so well. The Bucs lost in St. Louis, 28-21, in 2004.

"As I prepare for them and I think about the things that they're capable of now," Tomlin said, "you think about that defensive front in that environement and having to work on silent counts and the quality of the men up front and how that can impact the outcome of the game."

The Rams have built a defense loaded with first and second-round draft picks, and none is better than Aaron Donald, the left defensive tackle drafted out of Pitt with the 13th pick of the 2014 draft.

After compiling 29.5 sacks and 66 tackles-for-loss in four seasons at Pitt, Donald made the Pro Bowl and had nine sacks as a rookie with the Rams and was named the Associated Press NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.

He's seemingly picked it right back up this year with 2.5 sacks and 14 tackles in two games.

"Aaron Donald is their man inside and up front," Tomlin said. "Obviously I know quite a bit about Aaron Donald, probably too much. The things that I know about him don't help me sleep easy. This guy's extremely talented but he's also a hard worker."

Tomlin knows this to be a fact, because he saw Donald throughout last winter at the practice complex shared by the Steelers and Pitt.

"I spent a couple months here this year, February, March of 2015, getting out of my car every morning and running into Aaron Donald in that parking lot outside as he came in to work at Pitt," Tomlin said. "I think that guy left the Pro Bowl and went straight back to work. But that doesn't surprise me. I've seen him do it over the course of his college career, and the way his professional career is unfolding is not a surprise to those who know him and his willingness to work and his talents. He's living up to those expectations and doing a really great job for them. But he's not alone up front. They've got a lot of high-pedigreed guys up front."

The Rams' front four is made up entirely of first-round picks. Joining Donald at tackle is 2012 first-rounder Michael Brockers. At the ends are 2011 first-rounder Robert Quinn (two sacks) and 2008 first-rounder Chris Long (one sack). Former Detroit Lions first-round pick Nick Fairley (0.5 sack) comes in on pass downs.

"They play seven, eight defensive linemen," Tomlin said. "Those guys are the engine that drive their defensive car."

With close to 52,000 fans cheering at the Jones Dome on opening day, the Rams sacked Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson six times in a 34-31 overtime win.

In Jeff Fisher's fourth season as coach, the Rams are 13-12 at home and 8-16-1 on the road. Tomlin knows the Steelers' primary task will be keeping quarterback Ben Roethlisberger as clean as possible.

"We've got to do a great job of protecting the quarterback, but Ben's also got to do a great job of getting the ball out," Tomlin said. "We've got to do a great job of running and mixing up run and pass and play-action to stymie their pass rush. I think that's where the challenge of this week starts."

Specifically, it starts with blocking Donald.

"I try to meet almost all those (Pitt) guys, just being neighborly," Tomlin said. "It was obvious that his talents were his talents but what he's willing to do is even more impressive than his talents. Much like we talked about with Antonio Brown, he's a better worker than player, and that's saying something when you're talking about a player the caliber of Aaron Donald."


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