2018 Play of the Week – WK11 – Donald Defensive Domination

Note: Just a quick reminder that throughout the 2018 season, I have elected to take a different approach than I have over the first handful of seasons of me breaking down plays here. Instead, this year, we will focus more efforts on connecting the problem-solution reciprocal relationship more deeply. This new emphasis will be evident below…

Play: Donald’s Defensive Domination

Donald pic 6.jpg

Video of the Play:


Game: Chiefs at Rams

Player: Aaron Donald, Defensive Lineman, Los Angeles Rams

Other contenders this week:

Yes, there were 12 other games played in Week 11 and like during any week in the NFL, there were numerous plays/players worthy of recognition here. However, in a game where all eyes were fixated on this exceptional Monday night match-up, some stars shined bright:

  • Jared Goff, Quarterback, Los Angeles Rams: The winning team’s offensive leader narrowly out-dueled his counterpart during this shoot-out in the wild, wild west which included leading a scoring drive culminating in the 40 yard touchdown pass which would ultimately win this crazy game.
  • Patrick Mahomes, Quarterback, Kansas City Chiefs: We have recognized the sensational second year signal caller of one of the league’s best teams earlier this season where I highlighted his incredible instinct and his exceptional affordances for action. Though he’s also going to be present in our breakdown below due to being one of the main characters who fell victim to the beast that is Aaron Donald, let’s also not get it twisted here: Mahomes is a rare breed at the position and will likely frequent this blog site for years to come.
  • Sam Ebukam, Outside Linebacker, Los Angeles Rams: I will admit, it felt a little odd not giving the nod to this guy when he was the do-it-all-when-needed performer for the Rams defense Monday night. Ebukam recorded a sack, an interception, and a fumble recovery all while en route to two defensive touchdowns. However, in a game where defense was put on the backburner, the young Rams linebacker served notice that he is a force to be reckon with heading forward.

Pertinent Problem Constraints at-play:

Organism – It’s crazy to me to think that many football fans and even some detailed football aficionados do not realize just how good Aaron Donald really is. Well, the word “good” doesn’t even begin to describe him. In fact, no matter what superlative we come up with to describe him, the word and its definition will likely still come up well-short. He’s THAT good. In fact, he’s a freakshow even walking among the freaks of the NFL. Obviously, it’s a pretty difficult endeavor to essentially take over an NFL football game no matter the position one plays. Well, Aaron Donald, as he proved Monday night, is not only capable of doing so but does it with a style of mastery that even the layperson can see from a position that doesn’t often get the recognition it deserves.

His peers know who Aaron Donald is and the action he’s about. It’s not even an option to leave him singled up with your Guard all game long when lightning can still strike even when he’s double-teamed or when the offensive linemen does “everything that one can expect from him.” Though statistics don’t always tell the story, I think in this case they illustrate it nicely, Aaron Donald currently leads the NFL in sacks, QB hits, and tackles for a loss. Because of this, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year is the front runner to repeat.

Environmental – For starters here, this game could have been different if it had been played as scheduled (in Mexico) before the NFL stepped in realizing the danger that players were in due to poor field surface conditions. Thus, the NFL is as much to thank for the Monday night enjoyment that was brought to each of its fans. Instead of being played in Mexico, the Rams received a legitimate home game while playing in its current but temporary home in the LA Memorial Coliseum (the home of the USC Trojans) which is a wide open stadium with low cut and inherently fast, natural grass. Of course, even though it’s November football, it surely doesn’t ever feel like it in Los Angeles, CA with temperatures ‘dipping down’ to the mid-60’s at its worst with essentially no wind to speak of all game long. The other environmental constraint which would become a pertinent one is that of the socio-cultural sort: not only were these teams two of the very best in the league (the New Orleans Saints will surely have something to say about that “best” moniker) both coming in with a 9-1 record, but this game was also being played on primetime on Monday night football (which increases the amount of arousal which can boil over to anxiety), AND with what the city of Los Angeles and its surrounding areas have been through with the fires of recent weeks, this game was sure to be filled with a rare type of energy even for a NFL game.

Task – Early in this game, it became clear to me that I made the right decision in not writing my Movement Play of the Week until this Monday night match-up was complete. However, I will admit that I thought this was going to be written about one of the quarterbacks, or maybe one of the running backs (both Todd Gurley and Kareem Hunt have been featured here on our blog before), or maybe one of the wide receivers or the tight ends. In a game that exemplified the direction that the National Football League desires for its product to go (basically a real-life Madden video game), with all of the offense that one could ever want that left every viewer not wanting to get up from the television for risk of missing the next big offensive play, it would be the defense plays made which would define this game’s victor. And in this game filled with offensive star power, the game’s biggest one (Aaron Donald) shone the brightest. Based on the organismic constraints laid out above, like most star players in the NFL, Aaron Donald gets every opponent’s best. They basically get the whole kitchen sink and then some thrown at them on every single play. Yet, Donald knew that if he were able to take advantage of a few plays, it could turn the tides of the entire game and it certainly did as you will see when you watch the video above.

Information Present/Affordances for Action

When uncovering the nature of the problem-solution interface, we frequently discuss ideas as they pertain to the individual’s interactions with the affordances for action that exist for them personally. With as ‘simple’ as the problem to be solved appears to be for most individuals when they watch interior offensive linemen versus defensive linemen battling with one another, don’t let this global view fool you: these interactions contain a great deal of complexity to them. Where complexity (in the form of a dynamic, constantly changing emergent problem) lives in sport movement interactions, we also find a main feature of movement skill, adaptability, being put on display. This adaptability, within the movement solutions which are organized, is preceded by perceptual attunement. What this means is that the individual becomes sensitive to the specifying sensory information within the problem that they must couple their movement behaviors to (and with).

Donald pic 1.png

For the most masterful of movers, this specifying information is NOT just of the visual form; this is especially applicable for a defensive lineman who is solving the common problems that he is facing. Instead, the DL maintains a heightened degree of proprioceptive sense (aka awareness of the information present intrinsically within their body which signifies where they are in time and space) as well as haptic sense (aka the awareness of the information present in the touch and what they are feeling from the opponent). It’s from these two sensory subsystems for the defensive lineman, that the performer begins to understand the opportunities for movement based on the position they are in and in connection with the position that the offensive lineman is in. The visual subsystem does come into play too, of course, when the DL must become attuned to the ball carrier, whether it’s in interaction with the quarterback for sacking/fumble-forcing or whether it’s in interaction with the running back for chasing/bringing down.

What qualities stick out that make this Movement Play of the Week?

  1. Perceptual skill: AD99 knew what he intended to do when the opportunities (affordances) arose…he wanted the Chiefs stand-out signal caller on the ground…preferably without the ball once he would end up there. On both strip sacks, we can watch Donald’s perceptual skill being layered in the way that it was, being described above in its dimensions between the feel in his battle with Cam Erving (who did about as much as one can ask of him versus Donald) and in visual fixation of the body language of Mahomes. As brilliant as Mahomes has been this season, these two plays stand out where his own perceptual skill will need to become more sensitive to these types of situations where he knows he has the league’s best in pursuit and he tries to escape the pocket in this fashion by backing up and then running to his right rather lackadaisically with the ball which Donald remains attuned to, as well (we have a phrase that we use, “see ball, get ball!”). Thus, when things come together for Donald’s “reach-ability” of Mahomes in space, along with the ball’s “fumble-ability,” then the lighting strikes…twice. Donald pic 4.png Donald pic 5.png
  2. A diverse movement skill-set: As with most masterful movers in our sport, Donald possesses an abundant movement toolbox. In the plays shown on the video above, we see AD99 work through different chops and parries with his hands, and we see him put that all together to with movement and footwork such as his sit & lean as well as his stutter-to-go to test the perceptual qualities of Cam Erving (the Guard), as well extreme explosive out-bursts at times in the form of the two jumps which caused the fumbles on the sacks.
  3. Trust in one’s toolbox: Along with possessing a diverse and abundant movement skill-set, it’s of no use if under crunch time you don’t reach into the toolbox and attempt to parameterize the control variables of that solution to match the needs of the problem when it arises. A perfect example of Donald doing this today came on the first strip sack where after being twisted and turned to falling off balance, he just trusts himself to come out violently anyway by sticking his foot into the ground and simply pouncing at Mahomes. On the second strip sack, after a sit, dip, and lean into Erving, he rockets out in projection horizontally to follow this up in a leap to take down the retreating Mahomes. Donald pic 2 Donald pic 3.png

How could we potentially guide athletes to acquire similar movement skills?

Was it nature or was it nurture? This is the age old question which permeates sport at the highest levels. And when we talk about the player who exemplifies rare freakish abilities, this question becomes an even more worthy one. However, though Aaron Donald has physical abilities that are other worldly, he also has technical sport and movement skills that were honed and polished to put those abilities to use in relevant ways for them to shine when and where it counts on the field.

Above we discussed a great amount regarding the perceptual demands necessary to overcome at the position, most namely, the unique proprioceptive and haptic information present. Well, the only way to really gain attunement to those demands is to expose yourself to them and educate your attention to that sensory data to understand opportunities which it offers. One of the best ways I have found to become sensitive to this specifying information for these ‘hand fighting’ problems indicative of DL-OL play is to immerse one’s self into some martial arts skill acquisition. In this learning, one may be able to absorb functional techniques from them which could prove to be useful in the situations which we saw Donald excel it in the video above. In fact, it was through studying guys like JJ Watt back in 2012/2013, and then when Donald came onto the scene in 2014, that I elected to start including martial arts techniques (2x per week during the offseason and training camp prep period) for any of my players who played in the trenches and later extending it to some skill players, as well. As long as the teacher is willing to step out of the box and meet the player halfway to ensure that their techniques work within the context of the skill of the football problems present (which the teacher I take my guys to, Rick Faye of Minnesota Kali Group in Minneapolis, thankfully centers his focus on!), then I have found that the players are able to acquire this new understanding and begin to put these tools into their overall movement skill repertoire.

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