TAMPA — Weeks before the Bucs play an opponent, an advance scout looks ahead to analyze and anticipate the biggest challenges awaiting Tampa Bay's players and coaches.
So consider Bucs offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter forewarned about Rams phenom Aaron Donald, who leads NFL defensive tackles with 11 sacks in just his second season.
"He told me (Donald) was on the same level as (Texans star ) J.J. Watt," Koetter said Tuesday, preparing for Thursday night's game in St. Louis. "I thought to myself, 'Wow, that's hard to believe.' Then it came my time to watch the tape and I said, 'Oh, wow. He's on the same level as J.J. Watt.' This guy is having a fantastic year. Definitely a game-wrecker for this game."
Donald, 24, was drafted 12th overall by the Rams in 2014, and has 20 total sacks in two seasons, making a case this year for NFL defensive player of the year. He has at least one sack in four of his past five games, including three in last week's win over Detroit.
Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy has been busy scouting the Rams offense and ways to contain rookie running back Todd Gurley on Thursday night, but the fan in him enjoys watching Donald disrupt games from the interior.
"He's so explosive," McCoy said Tuesday. "The thing about him is he's a small guy (6 feet, 284 pounds), which helps. It's hard to get underneath his pads, but then he's a freak athlete. If you go back to his combine numbers, he had exceptional numbers."
Donald ran the 40-yard dash in 4.68 seconds, easily the fastest for a defensive tackle and faster than all but four defensive ends. Bucs starting end Howard Jones was faster at 4.60, but he weighs 50 pounds less than Donald, who was the second-strongest defensive lineman in his class with 35 reps of 225 pounds in the bench press.
"Not only that, he can play the game," McCoy continued. "I love watching him. I'm a fan of football and any defensive lineman that can play the game … he's very fun for me to watch."
It might not be fun for Bucs coach Lovie Smith to watch Donald, but he too is a fan of the Rams standout, one of the few interior pass rushers with more sacks this season than McCoy's seven.
"I thought he was a great player coming out of college," Smith said. "When I say great, there are a lot of players inside that can play the run, but he's a legitimate pass-rusher. It's a tough duty. He's a guy you have to double most of the time … great quickness, great strength. Will be a good matchup for our guards."
Smith mentioned that Donald was coached at Pittsburgh by veteran college coach Bob Junko, who was Tulsa's defensive coordinator in 1976 when Smith was a freshman linebacker.
"I recruited Lovie and then I got to coach him as a freshman," said Junko, 69. "He was unbelievable, played linebacker at 176 pounds. That year, we went over and beat (then-No. 9) Arkansas. He was unbelievable."
Junko said Donald and Smith have something in common in their dedication to learning the game and every detail possible to gain an advantage on opponents.
"Aaron was like Lovie — they worked at their game, had an innate ability to take what was on the film onto the field with them," Junko said. "You try to teach them that, but Aaron and Lovie understood difficult things like stances and line splits, backfield sets. They studied the game, and that's what separated them."
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.