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Steelers OL Faces Massive Test in Aaron Donald



Aaron Donald Steelers
TAMPA, FL - JANUARY 23: Los Angeles Rams Defensive Lineman Aaron Donald (99) watches the action on the field during the NFC Divisional game between the Los Angeles Rams and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on January 23, 2022 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire)

PITTSBURGH — The Steelers offensive line has seen some of the NFL’s best defensive players this year. From Myles Garrett to Nick Bosa to Maxx Crosby, the front has been put through a rigorous schedule of pass rushers. But Sunday against the Rams could be their biggest test, as future Hall of Famer and Pittsburgh native Aaron Donald welcomes them to Los Angeles. Donald is not on the tear in the stat sheet that he often is at this point in the year, but that does not mean to take him lightly.

Even through six games, Donald is shattering the pace of any other interior defensive lineman, leading the way with 30 pressures. It’s not that surprising; he is Aaron Donald, after all. Steelers center Mason Cole lit up and chucked when asked if Donald was slowing down.

“No, not really,” Cole said.

Cole is the player who will draw the most responsibility for shutting down Donald. From slide protections to likely one-on-one matchups, Donald will get matchups against Cole simply because Cole has not played well. But Cole has played against Donald before during his time in Arizona.

Steelers Mason Cole

Steelers center Mason Cole (61) runs out of the tunnel at Acrisure Stadium prior to a regular season game.

For what it’s worth, Cole wasn’t necessarily great in 2022, but he was a critical piece for the improvements the team’s offensive line made in 2022. He immediately cleaned up the snapping issues that had plagued the team when Kendrick Green had the starting job. In 2021, the Steelers averaged 3.9 yards per rush and gave up 38 sacks. In 2022, they ran at 4.1 yards per carry while keeping the sacks constant.

But that improvement from Cole hasn’t carried over into 2023. Last season, he gave up two sacks, four quarterback hits, and 15 hurries for 21 total pressures in 651 pass-block snaps. This season, he has allowed one sack, three quarterback hits, and nine hurries for 13 total pressures in just 191 pass-block snaps. Cole went from allowing a pressure every 31 snaps to one every 14.7 snaps. 

That’s alarming with a guy like Donald coming up on the schedule, but Cole is focusing on the challenge head-on. He has no choice; his quarterback might end up on the turf several times.

“He’s a special talent,” Cole said of Donald. “When he’s out there, it’s all eyes on him. He’s one of the best all-time to ever play this game. It’s going to be a challenge for us this week.”

Familiarity can only go so far when facing a guy like Donald, who is likely visiting Earth from another planet. Even if Cole has improved after the bye, Donald could take over the game. The three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year can wreck the week of a lineman playing well, let alone one struggling. That’s the big challenge for offensive line coach Pat Meyer this week, and it starts with getting Cole back to where he was playing in 2022.