SF 49ers vs. LA Rams: Why negating Aaron Donald is key to Week 12

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Nick Mullens (4) is sacked by Los Angeles Rams defensive end Aaron Donald (99) Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Nick Mullens (4) is sacked by Los Angeles Rams defensive end Aaron Donald (99) Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports /

The SF 49ers managed to keep the LA Rams’ Aaron Donald in check back in Week 6. It’ll need to happen again in Week 12.

Packed in all the noteworthy stats in the Week 6 box score between the SF 49ers and the visiting LA Rams from earlier this season was a pretty shocking storyline.

The Niners, perhaps quite miraculously, made Rams perennial first-team All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald look, well… pedestrian. He was a non-factor, quite literally.

San Francisco somehow managed to prevent arguably the NFL’s best defender from making an impact during that prime-time Sunday Night Football bout, holding him to just two tackles, a quarterback hit and zero sacks.

Quite incredible considering Donald has 11.5 sacks in 12 career games against the SF 49ers.

Yet Donald and the Rams will be looking to enact some vengeance from their earlier defeat this season at the hands of the Niners, particularly with the NFC West race heating up, albeit one which is seeing the 4-6 SF 49ers at the very bottom of the divisional standings. San Francisco’s offensive line has gone through shakeups, too, along with injuries affecting the quarterback who’ll be under center in Week 11: Nick Mullens instead of Jimmy Garoppolo, the latter having thrown three touchdowns in the previous win over Los Angeles.

This time, the results don’t exactly shade in the SF 49ers’ favor.

SF 49ers won’t have as easy a time vs. Aaron Donald in Week 12

One of the key differences between Weeks 6 and 12 is the Niners’ O-line makeup. In Week 6, San Francisco was still starting second-string center Ben Garland, who ended up suffering a calf injury late in that game and has been on injured reserve ever since.

Right guard Daniel Brunskill has since moved over to center, opening a serious void in talent in his former spot, now occupied by a less-than-desirable platoon between the veteran, Tom Compton, and the rookie, Colton McKivitz.

Neither Compton nor McKivitz should have any success blocking Donald, and one would figure the Rams won’t hesitate to simply place Donald right on top of that spot in the Niners O-line.

There is a way to offset Donald’s presence to a certain point, however.

How SF 49ers can mitigate Aaron Donald’s presence

Mullens doesn’t handle pressure well, particularly when it’s in his face. According to Pro Football Focus, Mullens’ passer rating drops to 46.1 when pressured compared to 111.1 with a clean pocket. It’s a stark difference.

If there’s a positive here, however, it’s the fact head coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense won’t shy away from rollouts and bootlegs to get Mullens moving sideways and out of the pocket. Doing so will help negate Donald’s interior pressure to a certain extent, as long as Mullens is able to find his targets relatively quickly.

According to NextGen Stats, Mullens’ average time to throw is 2.56 seconds, which is just a shade above that 2.5-second threshold where sack numbers increase dramatically.

If Mullens wants to avoid being taken down by Donald with regularity this Sunday, that number will have to drop lower.

It won’t be easy. Donald is still plenty fast enough to track Mullens down even if he escapes the initial pressure. And with the rest of the Niners offensive line having issues in pass protection this season, any additional pressure from the Rams off the edges will only spell more problems for Mullens and San Francisco’s passing game.

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Still, making sure Donald doesn’t take over the contest has to be the 49ers’ first priority.