After successive losses, the Cincinnati Bengals' season is threatening to go into a tailspin.
In a prime-time display that the Bengals seemingly deliver every season, they suffered their first loss of the season at home to the Houston Texans in Week 10. They followed that up with a less devastating loss to the Arizona Cardinals in Arizona.
The Bengals still sit at 8-2, leading the AFC North, but they are now only two games ahead of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Because both sides meet each other in three weeks, the Bengals can't afford to drop another game or the Steelers will be in touching distance.
Jeff Fisher's St. Louis Rams sit in a similar position. The Rams have lost three games in a row, allowing the Seattle Seahawks to overtake them in the NFC West as they slide to a losing record.
Beating the Bengals won't move the Rams back over .500, but it will keep them in touch with the NFC playoff race. They were 4-3 not so long ago, but since then, they have changed their starting quarterback, swapping out Nick Foles for Case Keenum.
Regardless of who is playing quarterback for the Rams, the offense typically only goes as far as running back Todd Gurley can carry them. Gurley has endured a drop-off in his production over the Rams' three-game losing streak. Piling the misery on Gurley will be important for the Bengals, but he's not the only key player they need to be concerned about.
Aaron Donald has been arguably the best defensive player in the NFL this season.
The second-year defensive tackle has started all 10 games, notching seven sacks and registering 45 tackles. More importantly, he has been a constant disruptor both against the run and the pass. Donald's explosiveness off the line of scrimmage forces offenses to adjust their play calls or risk creating negative plays.
Against the Bengals, Donald will face off against one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. However, he will have opportunities to target the weaker spots on that line.
Head coach Marvin Lewis has built his offensive line from the outside in. Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith are the most experienced starters. Smith has struggled somewhat as of late while dealing with health issues, but both are high-quality starters. The same can be said about guards Kevin Zeitler and Clint Boling.
Boling is probably the least talented of those four, but he's still significantly better than center Russell Bodine.
Bodine is a player the Bengals have stuck with as their starter since he was drafted. He flashes power and can make impact blocks, but more often than not, his biggest impact is a negative one on his own team. He lacks the control and/or athleticism to consistently match up to a defensive tackle of the caliber of Donald.
Fortunately for the Bengals, the center is unlikely to be left in one-on-one situations with Donald. Instead, the Rams will look to exploit Boling and Bodine together, or offensive coordinator Hue Jackson will call plays that look to use Donald's aggressiveness against him when Bodine is solely responsible for him.
Andy Dalton has been protected better than most quarterbacks in the league this season. If Donald can create interior pressure on a regular basis, he could curtail the output of the whole offense.
Against the Bengals, it's important to be a balanced defense. You can't use specialized players because Jackson will look to build a balanced offense that stretches the defense both horizontally and vertically while relying on running and passing plays.
Donald isn't a one-dimensional player. He can shut down running plays to set up favorable down-and-distance situations for the defense.
Expecting Donald to underperform is unrealistic. He has been one of the most consistent players in the league, always making impact plays behind the line of scrimmage both against the run and the pass. This was true of his display last week against the Baltimore Ravens.
The second-year defensive tackle lines up on the outside shoulder of the left guard.
As he so often does, Donald wins on this play at the snap. His quickness to get off the line allows him to set himself up in an upright stance before the left guard has engaged him. Donald has his eyes in the backfield, so he can see the run play coming in his direction.
He doesn't use a swim move, but Donald does slide past the inside shoulder of the left guard before using his left arm to push him to the side.
Because the Ravens are using zone blocking, the center is working across to immediately try to pick up Donald. The speed of the defensive tackle means that the center doesn't have a good angle to prevent Donald from getting to his running back.
With the leverage advantage, Donald is able to fend off the center with his strength to maintain his balance. He continues forward to the point that the blocker is shed, and Donald can cleanly tackle running back Justin Forsett behind the line of scrimmage.
This play results in a five-yard loss.
The Rams are giving up 108.1 rushing yards per game, 16th in the NFL, but they are a better run defense in terms of efficiency. Football Outsiders ranks the Rams as the third-best defense in the NFL, both third against the run and against the pass.
Running directly at Donald is difficult, but running away from him is also problematic because of his intensity and explosiveness.
On this play against the Cleveland Browns from earlier in the season, Donald lines up at right defensive tackle again, but this time, he is directly over the left guard. The Browns have a heavy package on the field, but both the fullback and tight end are lined up on the opposite side of the field.
The Browns are going to attempt to pull their left guard away from Donald to run to the right side of the field.
Most defensive lineman are reactive players. They have to be just by the nature of the position. Donald isn't as reactive as he is proactive. His reactions are so quick and his physical burst is so overwhelming that his movement at the snap often appears instantaneous.
As the above image shows, Donald moves with the left guard and is advancing downfield as he begins to pull to the other side of the formation.
When you weigh 285 pounds, skinny isn't a term that typically applies to you. Donald isn't your typical 285-pound person, but it was still an impressive sight to see him get as skinny as he possibly could on this play. As he crossed the line of scrimmage, Donald brought his arms together while keeping his legs beneath him.
This prevented either offensive lineman from making significant contact with him.
A byproduct of Donald bringing his arms in was the power he exerted when he swung them back out. This movement knocked the center away from his body and gave him a clear path toward the running back in the backfield.
Donald was so fast out of the blocks on this play that he almost got to the quarterback before he could hand the ball off.
The Bengals haven't been a good power-running team this season, but they will attempt to run power with Jeremy Hill. Giovani Bernard is more likely to take handoffs from shotgun. In those situations, the Bengals will still use linemen in different ways, but it's less likely that they pull either guard.
Establishing the run for the Bengals hasn't been difficult this year. Football Outsiders ranks the unit eighth on a snap-by-snap basis while running for 113.6 yards per game. While the Bengals are eighth running the ball according to Football Outsiders, the advanced analytics site thinks more highly of the offense as a whole.
Football Outsiders ranks the Bengals first in the league overall and first in the league in passing.
Against the Ravens last week, Donald had 10 tackles and a sack. His sack came deep in his own territory, when the Ravens were threatening to score. The Ravens spaced their offensive linemen, giving Donald a wide B-gap to line over between the left guard and left tackle.
This is a situation the Bengals should look to avoid this week.
At the snap, Donald explodes off the line and gets on top of the left guard's outside shoulder. He uses his outside arm to powerfully punch the blocker before swimming past him. Within a few steps, the defensive tackle has not only gotten level with left guard but was already pushing further downfield.
The left tackle had aligned wide at the snap and had his attention drawn further outside by the edge-rusher.
Because of the left tackle's wide alignment, he couldn't immediately stop Donald when he worked inside. However, he was still in position to recover. He stepped back inside so he could confront the rampaging defensive tackle.
Although the left tackle established good positioning, Donald was able to violently explode through him with both arms extended.
The left tackle was knocked aside to the point that he was still engaged with Donald but not in a good position to create leverage. Donald was able to drag both offensive linemen with him as he forced his way to Joe Flacco in the pocket for a seven-yard sack.
At just 24 years of age, Donald is already one of the most intimidating players in the NFL. The Bengals have arguably the most intimidating offense in the league, so this clash should be one of the most entertaining to watch all season.
It's fitting that such an intriguing matchup will have such a big impact on shaping the playoffs in both conferences.