TAMPA — The Bucs' early schedule has their offense facing some of the NFL's elite, game-changing defensive players — Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Peterson last weekend with Arizona, linebacker Von Miller next weekend with Denver and linebacker Luke Kuechly with Carolina on Oct. 10.
In the middle of that run — and at the center of the Bucs' concerns this week — is Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who in two years has established himself as one of the league's most disruptive players.
Tampa Bay's offensive line goes up against All-Pro defensive tackle Gerald McCoy in practice every day. Facing Donald, who had 20 sacks in his first two seasons, might be tougher.
"He's probably the best defensive tackle in this league," said Bucs offensive tackle Demar Dotson, McCoy's teammate for seven seasons. "When you start comparing guys like Gerald McCoy and (Ndamukong) Suh, he's probably the best."
Donald got his first career sack against the Bucs in 2014. In last year's game between the teams, he was held without one but still keyed a decisive Rams victory. Containing him is a challenge the Bucs' interior line — center Joe Hawley and guards Ali Marpet and Kevin Pamphile — is embracing, energized by a chance to go up against such a formidable opponent.
"Even as much as you prepare and watch film and go against him, he's just a special talent," Hawley said. "You'll feel like you have him locked down and he'll be right by you in the blink of an eye. You can't really let up against him. You have to finish every play."
Like McCoy, Donald has become the kind of player who mandates double teams, which opens opportunities for other defensive linemen. Rams end Robert Quinn is dangerous, too.
"It's the opposing offense's job to create the two-on-ones, and so we understand that," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said this week. "Someone else has to win when Aaron gets the double, but he's a special player."
Donald is short by NFL defensive tackle standards — at 6 feet 1, he's 3 inches shorter than McCoy — but he has been imposing with his quickness and strength. Bucs coach Dirk Koetter remembers preparing for him last year on a short week building up to a Thursday night game. Koetter is grateful now to have a full week.
"Donald and Gerald McCoy arguably could be the two best three-technique (defensive tackles) in the league," Koetter said. "A little bit different in size, but in production? Wow. … When I was in Atlanta and we played the Bucs with Gerald, we doubled him every play. You try to do the same thing with Donald."
Establishing the run to set up the pass is especially important to the Bucs offense, and especially difficult with leading rusher Doug Martin sidelined Sunday with a hamstring injury — and with Donald in the middle of the defense.
Without a consistent run game, the Bucs face falling into third-and-long situations where the Rams pass rush is at its most troublesome.
Though they respect Donald, the Bucs' linemen also know they can block effectively and control the line of scrimmage.
"You really don't need to do anything superhuman," Marpet said. "You just need to be in good posture, move your feet, throw your hands. Everything you're supposed to do, you have to do with him. If you're lunging, he'll rip past you."
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.