The grin that spread across Aaron Donald’s face belied his answer.
Asked Thursday if one of his goals was to join the small club of three-time winners of the NFL defensive-player-of-the-year award, Donald chuckled.
“I'm just going week to week,” Donald, a two-time winner, said during a videoconference with reporters, “and I'm just going to play ball and try to win games.”
Only two players have been voted defensive player of the years three times. Former New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor won in 1981, 1982 and 1986 and Houston Texans lineman J.J. Watt in 2012, 2014 and 2015.
In 2018, Donald joined them as the only players to win the award in consecutive seasons. Retired linemen Joe Greene, Bruce Smith and Reggie White, and linebackers Mike Singletary and Ray Lewis won the award twice but not two years in a row.
As this season approaches its midpoint, Donald is making his case to reclaim the honor he received in 2017 and 2018.
Donald recorded a half-sack in last Monday’s 24-10 victory over the Chicago Bears, increasing his season sack total to eight. The seventh-year pro has 80 sacks heading into Sunday’s game against the Miami Dolphins and rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who will be making his first pro start.
“He definitely did some real good things in college,” Donald said of the former Alabama star, “so it’s expected for him to be able to translate that to the National Football League, but hopefully not this week.”
After missing the playoffs last season, the Rams are 5-2 and aiming to return to the Super Bowl. A 13-3 loss to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII still motivates Donald, a six-time Pro Bowl selection.
“The only thing I didn't accomplish I feel like, is a Super Bowl, so that's my only thing, is trying to do everything I can to help this team to win and get back to the Super Bowl and this time win it,” he said.
Donald is one of the key players for a defense that ranks sixth in the NFL, giving up 312.9 yards per game. The Rams are second in scoring defense (17.7 points per game) and tied for third with 24 sacks.
Donald’s sack production this season puts him ahead of his 2017 pace and equals his pace in 2018.
Three years ago, Donald did not participate in training camp because of a contract dispute and did not play in the opener. He had only four sacks in his first seven games, and finished with 11 in 14 games. That was enough to win the award for the first time.
Donald also sat out training camp in 2018, but signed a $135-million extension and was ready for the opener. He had eight sacks in the first seven games, and finished with 20½ sacks, the most in history by an interior lineman.
Rams outside linebacker Leonard Floyd cited Donald’s four-sack performance against Washington on Oct. 11 as proof that he should be the favorite to win again.
“That’s kind of outrageous,” Floyd said. “So I don’t think anybody can top that.”
Donald’s case is strong not only because of his individual performance, defensive coordinator Brandon Staley said.
“You have to factor in the production that he creates for other players too,” Staley said. “I think that's really the definition of an MVP — when you are to be the most valuable player your value extends far beyond just yourself, it's how you affect others.”
The Rams must build on their performance against the Bears, Donald said. The defense gave up only a field goal, intercepted two passes and recorded four sacks.
“The way we played as a team, as a group, as a defense was solid, was physical, everybody was flying around,” Donald said. “We've just got to keep that same energy, that same consistent play and as long as we do that, we'll keep getting better and we'll dominate."
Tight end Tyler Higbee (hand) returned to practice and was limited, per the Rams injury report. Tight end Gerald Everett and receiver Trishton Jackson practiced after sitting out Wednesday’s walk-through because of illness. ... Dolphins receiver Jakeem Grant did not practice because of illness, per the Dolphins injury report. Tight end Adam Shaheen (shoulder), receiver DeVante Parker (groin) and linebacker Kyle Van Noy (foot) were limited.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.