Rams’ Aaron Donald and Bears’ Khalil Mack have stayed close, from first round to big money

THOUSAND OAKS – Two defensive player of the year awards, and $276 million in contract money. That’s what Aaron Donald and Khalil Mack have totaled since they last faced each other, as rookies.

They’re almost like fraternal twins. Drafted eight spots apart in the 2014 first round, Donald and Mack have taken different paths to dominance, but they are considered two of their generation’s top pass-rushers, and they’ll meet Sunday when the Rams travel to Chicago in a game with great meaning for both teams.

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Add another number: 105. That’s the combined number of career sacks for Donald and Mack. Listen closely, and it’s possible to hear groaning from quarterbacks Mitchell Trubisky and Jared Goff.

“When you face those great rushers, it’s a challenge for you, but it’s one you look forward to,” Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “You’ve got to do your best to give us time to complete plays and move the football.”

Donald, with a league-high 16.5 sacks, is on his way to a second consecutive defensive player of the year award, and perhaps league MVP consideration. He’s an absolute force inside, and for decades to come, the story of the 2014 draft will be about the 12 teams that passed him up before the Rams grabbed him.

Donald indicated Thursday that he and Mack aren’t close friends but that they’re cordial, and there’s clearly respect there.

“He’s a heck of a football player,” Donald said. “He can do a lot of things. He’s a play maker and a big-time player.”

Not every team made a big mistake in that draft, though. Oakland drafted Mack at No. 5 and didn’t regret it, at least until this past August, when Donald and Mack, tied together again, made league history.

Both players’ rookie contracts were about to expire, and both teams insisted they weren’t waiting for the other player to sign. Oakland wasn’t waiting to see how much the Rams gave Donald, and vice versa.

Right. Sure thing. It just so happened, then, that the day after the Rams gave Donald a new six-year, $135-million contract, the Raiders – apparently unwilling to match that – traded Mack to Chicago. Mack then topped Donald by signing a six-year, $141-million deal, the biggest ever for a defensive player.

Neither team has been disappointed. The Rams clinched the NFC West last week, and the Bears lead the NFC North and are on track for their first playoff appearance and division championship since 2010.

Mack missed two games this season with an ankle injury but has nine sacks in 10 games. In last week’s overtime loss to the New York Giants, Mack had one sack and tied his season high with five tackles.

“He plays with great urgency and juice every single play,” Rams coach Sean McVay said. “He can really bend and turn on the edge, and then when he gets close to the quarterback, he is violently attacking the football.”

Sacks aren’t great for an offense, but the Rams have a bigger issue. Mack has forced five fumbles this season, although he has only one in his last six games. Goff has lost three fumbles in his last two games, and while his pocket awareness is generally good, Goff seems prone to having the ball stripped.

The Rams’ offensive line has received rightful praise this season for its consistency and strong play, but things haven’t been all rosy for this unit. The Rams have allowed the ninth-fewest sacks, but Goff has been dropped 26 times in 12 games this season, compared to his 25 sacks in 15 games in 2017. Now, the Rams face a Bears defense, led by Mack, that is strong up front.

Khalil Mack of the Chicago Bears has forced five fumbles in 10 games this season, and is perhaps the biggest threat the Rams face in Sunday night’s game at Chicago. (AP Photo/Matt Marton)

“You definitely have a plan for it,” Goff said. “When a guy like (Mack) can affect the game, you have to be conscious of it through the week and have a plan for it. Yeah, be aware of where he is, but still play your game and focus on what you need to do.”

Turnovers are important to the Bears. Their plus-12 margin is the best in the league, as is their total of 21 interceptions. Goff has turned over the ball four times in his last two games.

So the Rams have some concerns, but so should the Bears, given that it’s been a couple months since another team proved capable of blocking Donald. He’s coming off one of the greatest efforts of his career, with two sacks and a game-turning forced fumble in the fourth quarter against the Lions.

Donald, with 16.5 sacks and four games remaining, might even have an outside chance to break Michael Strahan’s single-season record of 22.5 set in 2001.

“I’m just playing football,” Donald said. “If it happens, it happens. If it don’t, it don’t. I’m just doing my job and trying to fly around.”

Now, Donald likely will face Chicago quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, who has missed the previous two games with a shoulder injury. The Bears have made no promises, but Trubisky appears to be on track to play against the Rams and Donald, who might not be great for Trubisky’s shoulder.

Asked by Chicago reporters about avoiding re-injury, Trubisky said: “Being smart, trying to slide properly, trying not to be so unorthodox, picking up yardage and then just getting down when I need to get down. Getting out of bounds. And continue to stay aggressive. But like I said, I’m not going to go out there if I’m not 100 percent. I’m going to play my game. No reservations. Just go out there and do what I know how to do.”

NO HESITATION

Rams cornerback Aqib Talib is expected to have a full workload this week, McVay said before Thursday’s practice at Cal Lutheran. Last week in Detroit, in his first game back after ankle surgery, Talib played only the first half (26 plays), and the Lions totaled three points and 87 passing yards.

“He’s good,” McVay said. “We’ll hopefully not have to have him on any sort of pitch count at all this week. That was kind of the goal all along. It sounds like the field has been in good condition in Chicago, from what I understand. Unless something sets us back, he’s going to be a full go, from the start to the finish.”

Talib and the Rams will face a talented, balanced Chicago pass game and has split catches among receivers Taylor Gabriel (54) and Allen Robinson (41), tight end Trey Burton (38) and running back Tarik Cohen (a team-high 59). A return to full action by Talib at least will give the Rams two solid cornerbacks and perhaps some insurance for Marcus Peters, who has been nursing an ankle injury.

“As long as he’s ready to go, we’re going to let him play,” defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said of Talib.

BIG HONOR FOR WHITWORTH

The Rams selected left tackle Andrew Whitworth as their nominee for the NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, which annually recognizes a player “for outstanding community service activities off the field, as well as excellence on the field.” The winner will be announced the night before the Super Bowl.

Whitworth has been involved in several charitable efforts since he joined the Rams in 2017. Most recently, he donated a game-week check to a fund for victims of last month’s mass shooting in Thousand Oaks. Whitworth also has contributed to causes involving the Make-A-Wish Foundation and military veterans.

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