With tears welling in his eyes, Aaron Donald stood on the Lambeau Field sideline lamenting an opportunity that got away.
“I just care,” Donald said this week when asked about his emotions that day. “That is what it comes down to, just caring.”
Donald played that game with a rib injury that precluded the three-time NFL defensive player of the year from disrupting in a way that has bedeviled opposing offensive coordinators for seven-plus seasons.
Donald, 30, is back to full strength and eager to return to Lambeau Field on Sunday when the Rams (7-3) will play the Packers (8-3) in a key conference matchup.
Did last season’s crushing 32-18 defeat provide motivation to play the Packers again?
“A lot of things motivate me,” Donald said, “but you could say that, yes.”
Packers coach Matt LaFleur joked that the thought of an extra-motivated Donald made him want to cry.
“This guy is a complete game-wrecker,” LaFleur said Thursday during a videoconference.
Donald has six sacks this season for a Rams defense that is coming off a poor performance in a 31-10 loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Nov. 15.
The 49ers opened the game with an 18-play scoring drive and never let up.
“To make it really simple and short, they played [a] more physical game than us — from an offensive standpoint and a defense standpoint,” Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris said. “They were able to maintain those drives by playing old-school, torture-ball-type mentality, you know, three yards and a cloud of dust.”
The Packers feature quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the reigning NFL most valuable player, and receiver Davante Adams. Running back Aaron Jones did not play in last Sunday’s 34-31 loss to the Minnesota Vikings because of a knee injury. If Jones remains sidelined, AJ Dillon will start again in his place.
Donald said the Rams must establish consistency.
“That's what it comes down to in this league, you got to be consistent,” Donald said. “You can't have a dominant week one week and then give up a bunch of points or a bunch of rushing yards other weeks.”
Last season, Donald was part of a defense that ranked among the best in the NFL in several categories.
The Rams finished 10-6 and defeated the Seattle Seahawks in a wild-card playoff game. But during the game, Donald suffered a rib injury.
In the NFC divisional-round game against the Packers, he played only 40 of 75 defensive snaps. He made one tackle.
“When you think about what he was really persevering and pushing through, it just epitomizes what a stud he is and how much he wanted to be out there with his teammates,” Rams coach Sean McVay said this week, adding, “The suddenness, the twitch, the explosion, all the things that make him special — there were some limitations in that.
“And then obviously the snap count was limited.”
As the final seconds ticked off the Lambeau Field clock to end the Rams’ season, Donald was overcome with emotion.
“He wants to do everything for this team to try to help his teammates, to be able to achieve success collectively,” McVay said. “And I think there was a lot of emotions because of how important it is where that represents the finality of the chase to try to go be a world champion.
“But then it also represented him working through some stuff. And I think it was a combination of probably the frustration, not being able to be at his best.”
Donald indicated that he was done talking about last season. He said he was “100% healthy” and energized coming out of last week’s open date.
“No injuries, no aches, no pains,” he said. “I'm coming off of a bye, feeling good. So, we ready to go. I'm ready to go.”
Donald said the Rams would approach Sunday’s game like a playoff game.
He knows when he shows emotion, teammates are watching.
“It's all about winning,” he said. “We all playing for the ultimate goal. We talk about it, I’ve been talking about it, is to be a world champion. That's what I'm chasing. That's what we chasing.
“And until we accomplish that, I'm trying to find a way to get back to a Super Bowl and have the opportunity to win one. So, that’s what’s going to make me satisfied when I accomplish that.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.