The Rams' star defensive tackle latched on to Smith body like a backpack, the muscular weight of his 280-pound frame bearing down on the Washington quarterback’s right leg, the one that nearly was amputated two years ago.
But the 36-year-old veteran got up from the soggy surface and returned to the sideline after the third-down sack. Donald did as well, with television cameras capturing him smiling as he drank from a water bottle.
Almost 700 days ago, Smith, the No.1 draft pick in 2005, broke his fibula in that same stadium in Washington, a fix requiring 17 surgeries and a grueling recovery process. After Sunday's game, Smith's first since the injury, Rams players and coach Sean McVay praised him and his well-documented journey.
But that didn’t stop the Rams defense from spoiling his comeback. In the pouring rain, Los Angeles defeated Washington 30-10 behind an eight-sack sack performance, half of them coming from Donald.
“That’s how Aaron is all the time,” McVay said. “You’re so appreciative of him, but that’s what he does. He changes the game week in and week out.”
Smith missed all of last season for his rehabilitation and began this year as Washington’s third-string quarterback. But coach Ron Rivera benched starter Dwayne Haskins this week for Kyle Allen, who completed nine of 13 passes for 74 yards and rushed for a touchdown.
But near the two-minute warning before halftime, Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey landed a hard hit on Allen when he scrambled, forcing the quarterback to the sideline. Smith’s three young children looked on from the stands as he warmed up, his wife, Elizabeth, clasping her hands nervously over her black facemask branded with her husband’s No. 11.
Smith came in and completed his first pass for six yards. Washington went three and out, but after an interception of Rams quarterback Jared Goff with 49 seconds left, Smith went four for four while driving for a field goal to end the half.
He finished nine for 17 for just 37 yards while absorbing six sacks, but he finally was back on the field.
“Very surreal at first,” Smith said of his comeback. “To have it happen as fast as it did was probably almost a blessing. It was kind of nice in that situation not having to think about it. You just go out and do it.”
Defensive lineman Michael Brockers said he and his teammates talked about the quarterback switch, saying they were “licking their chops” because Smith wasn’t as mobile as Allen. But soon he realized the significance of the moment.
“I took a step back when I got off the field and was like, ‘Man, wow, this dude is really out there with us,' ” said Brockers, who assisted on six tackles.
“He was so close to not even playing again and having his leg cut off. The fact that he is out there playing with professionals on this level, it’s truly a blessing.”
Donald produced his sack total despite the attention of Washington’s offensive line being shifted his way. He met an unexpected ally in inside linebacker Troy Reeder, who posted three sacks and 10 combined tackles. Undrafted out of Delaware, the second-year player started because of a groin injury to Micah Kiser.
Reeder started eight games last season, recording 52 combined tackles and two forced fumbles. He'd played mostly special teams this season and said it took a few series against Washington to reacclimate himself. It worked, with him tallying the first sack of his career and adding two more for good measure.
“I prepare every week like I’m going to be in the game and support the guys who are and help them prepare,” Reeder said. “When your opportunity does come, you’re expected to do your part and it doesn’t matter how much you’ve played in the beginning part of the year. When you’re called upon, you have to do your job.”
The disruption the Rams caused followed a similar display last week, when they recorded five sacks and nine quarterback hits against the New York Giants. Brockers thinks the trend can continue if the defensive front remains disciplined.
“It’s all about playing it true up front at the beginning of the game,” he said, “and then once we’re up, then we can pin our ears back and go get it.”
Morgan reported from Los Angeles.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.