Talk all you want about how banged up the Indianapolis Colts were, but don’t forget this: The Los Angeles Rams didn’t have Aaron Donald.
The Rams returned two interceptions for touchdowns and could have had another. They forced a fumble and caused a safety. They registered five sacks and nine tackles for loss. They held a team to 225 yards from scrimmage and zero third-down conversions. And they did it all without quite possibly the game’s best defensive player. The Rams plugged Tanzel Smart and Tyrunn Walker in Donald’s place, and they didn’t skip a beat under new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
“There’s no concern about the ability that the players have,” said Rams outside linebacker Robert Quinn, who had a sack and two tackles for loss. “Of course, Aaron’s on a level of his own. But the players that are here and Wade and his system, I think it allows everyone, no matter the skill level, to be productive and dominate. As long as guys believe in themselves, we can make something happen.”
The Colts didn’t have Pro Bowl quarterback Andrew Luck in this game. They started it with Scott Tolzien, who became the first quarterback to throw two pick-sixes since Tony Romo in 2015, and finished it with Jacoby Brissett. Trumaine Johnson returned an interception for a touchdown less than five minutes into the game, and Lamarcus Joyner did the same near the midway point of the third quarter. Nickell Robey-Coleman — filling in for Kayvon Webster, who left early with an injured shoulder — nearly had a pick-six of his own later but dropped a pass after jumping the route.
The Rams became the first defense in NFL history to return two interceptions for touchdowns and record a safety in the season opener, and it all started up front. They pressured Colts quarterbacks on 42 percent of dropbacks, their second-highest pressure percentage since the start of last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Last season, the Rams pressured opposing quarterbacks on only 26 percent of dropbacks, 23rd in the NFL. And that was with Donald playing a full season.
“We came into this game technically sound,” Johnson said. “We knew what we had to do.”
Donald reported to the team on Saturday but chose not to attend Sunday’s game because Rams coach Sean McVay said he didn’t want his presence to become a distraction to the team. Donald will reconvene with the players at the team facility on Monday, and the Rams will continue to negotiate with his agents on a contract extension that will eventually make him the game’s highest-paid defensive player.
“He’s all about the right things,” McVay said of Donald. “We’re trying to work to come to a solution. He’s a special player. In my interaction with Aaron, I have nothing but the utmost respect. Hopefully we can come to a conclusion where we can get him on the field with his teammates. We know that he’ll certainly help our defense.”