ANAHEIM, Calif. — Jared Goff and Carson Wentz will command the entire NFL’s attention during their first head-to-head matchup when the Los Angeles Rams host the Philadelphia Eagles.
As for those two quarterbacks themselves, they’ll be paying a whole lot more attention to the two elite defensive tackles trying to clobber them.
Los Angeles’ Aaron Donald and Philadelphia’s Fletcher Cox are two of the NFL’s best interior linemen, taking up enormous space in most offenses’ game plans with their disruptive presences. They’re also friends who talk regularly and share the same agent, and they’ll have similar responsibilities for their respective defenses Sunday.
If they’re successful, this matchup of two elite young quarterbacks could be upstaged by two elite defensive forces.
“Yeah, I think they’re both two game-wreckers,” Rams offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur said of Donald and Cox.
While Donald and Cox have the Pro Bowl appearances and league-wide respect they deserve for their standout work, casual fans who might not know just how good they are will get a chance to see it in the Coliseum.
Donald’s play on the Rams’ defensive line is the engine driving the entire Los Angeles defense. Although he is listed at just 6-foot-1, Donald’s power is formidable : The three-time Pro Bowler provides a seismic push up front on nearly every play.
Donald leads the NFL with 69 tackles for loss since the 2014 season, and he has eight sacks already this season despite lining up in the middle of the defensive line and facing regular double-teams.
“You never know where he’s going to be,” the 6-foot-4 Cox said of Donald. “That’s the thing about him. He’ll make plays just all over the field. Everybody looks at him (and) they know he’s a little guy, but he’s a little guy that’s really physical. He plays the game mean, and that’s what I really like about him.”
Wade Phillips, the Rams’ first-year defensive coordinator, recently deployed his sarcastic wit when he named Donald as the player who had been the biggest surprise to him in Los Angeles.
“I thought he was good, but I didn’t know he was better than everybody,” Phillips said.
Cox is earning similar praise during another strong season for the Eagles, whose defense is ranked third overall in the NFL. He has 5 1/2 sacks despite missing two games to injury, and he has provided sturdy play against the run and the pass .
“I’m pretty sure he’s going to go out there and make a lot of plays, and I’m going to try to make a lot of plays as well,” Donald said. “We’re just going to be flying around.”
Cox also is being hit with regular double-teams lately, and that’s one big reason why he has just one sack in the past four games. But when Cox draws attention, linemate Brandon Graham is freed up — and he has 3 1/2 sacks in the last three games.
“The thing about it is, lately here, a bunch of teams have been giving me a lot of attention, but Brandon Graham has been sacking the quarterback a lot,” Cox said. “If a team wants to put two sets of hands on me, they’re going to give us a chance to get after the quarterback.”
Cox agreed to a six-year, $103 million contract extension last year, with $63 million guaranteed. That was a record for guaranteed money given to a defensive player, but Donald will probably wipe out more records when he finally signs his next contract.
Donald held out through training camp and the preseason while seeking a new deal with the Rams, but eventually returned one day before the season opener to play under his rookie contract. Donald is widely expected to be offered a huge long-term deal by the Rams in the offseason, and the numbers could set a new benchmark for players at his position.
“I’m ready to see what’s going to happen with that fella right there,” Cox said with a grin.