R.B. FALLSTROM, AP Sports Writer

ST. LOUIS (AP) — After playing against Jameis Winston in college, Aaron Donald came away feeling like he should have had three sacks but ended up with just one.

READ MORE: Interest In Unionizing Grows Among Michigan Starbucks Workers

“That was his first college start, a redshirt freshman,” Donald recalls about the Pittsburgh-Florida State matchup. “But he had a good game, he beat us. I owe him one.”

Donald remembered one more thing. When you’re chasing after Winston, “Make sure you get your big boy pants on.”

He’s had few regrets in the NFL.

Entering Thursday night’s game against Winston’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-7), last year’s NFL defensive rookie of the year has improved across the board.

“I feel like I got better, from rushing the passer to stopping the run,” Donald said. “I worked my butt off during the offseason. I feel a lot more comfortable.”

It should have cut into Donald’s production when end Robert Quinn, the leader of the pass rush, was lost for the year with a back injury — allowing opposing teams to focus on Donald. Instead, he’s on a roll, coming off a three-sack game in a victory over the Lions that gave him 11 on the year — two more than in 2014 when he set a franchise rookie mark — and landed him NFC defensive player of the week honors.

End Chris Long said Donald should be in the running for NFL defensive player of the year.

“To me, he’s as good an interior lineman as there is in the game. He’s on J.J. Watt’s level,” Long said. “If he was more marketable or whatever, he might get that kind of attention.”

Against the Lions, Donald was a bit overshadowed by cornerback Trumaine Johnson’s 58-yard interception return for touchdown and game-long shutdown of Calvin Johnson. But not by much.

Lions coach Jim Caldwell was succinct: “Quite a bit, he was an issue.”

Donald also had three tackles for loss and six quarterback hits against Detroit for a defense also minus outside linebacker Alec Ogletree, safety T.J. McDonald and cornerback Janoris Jenkins. He leads the Rams (5-8) in sacks, tackles for loss (21) and quarterback pressures (33), plus he has two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.

“They’re double-teaming him, he’s breaking double-teams,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “We created some 1-on-1 matchups for him by call design, and when you do that, he usually wins.”

READ MORE: Delta Unveils New Face Recognition Screen That Displays Personalized Flight Information


“You’re supposed to win 1-on-1s,” Donald said. “That’s why they brought me here.”

Buccaneers offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said an advance scout told him Donald was “on the same level as J.J. Watt.” There’s that name again.

“I thought to myself, ‘Wow, that’s hard to believe,'” Koetter said. “Then it came my time to watch the tape. This guy is having a fantastic year. Definitely a game-wrecker.”

Donald’s two-year total of 20 sacks leads NFL defensive tackles over that period and is eighth-most overall. This year’s total is fifth in the NFL. The four players ahead of him, including Watt, are all defensive ends.

Bucs standout defensive tackle Gerald McCoy has seven sacks. McCoy thinks Donald’s lack of size — he’s 6-foot-1 and 285 pounds — helps prevent blockers from getting beneath his pads.

“But then, he’s a freak athlete,” McCoy said. “If you go back to his Combine numbers, he had exceptional numbers.”

Fellow Rams defensive tackle Michael Brockers said leverage is just one of Donald’s advantages.

“And also he’s quick enough to get around you,” Brockers said. “Guards and centers struggle against him because they don’t know what he has in his tool belt, and he has everything.”

Donald is a half-sack shy of the franchise mark by a defensive tackle set in 1995 by D’Marco Farr, who had an extremely quick first step especially early in his career.

“He was a sideline to sideline, great effort player,” Fisher said, “and that’s where Aaron is right now.”

NOTES: The Buccaneers have allowed only three rushes of 20 or more yards, tied with Seattle for fewest in the NFL. Rams rookie Todd Gurley has 11 20-plus carries, tied for second most in the league. … Winston said he and Gurley are close and that he’s been texting Gurley throughout the week. “We’ve been friends since we were high schoolers,” Winston said. “That’s my guy.”

MORE NEWS: Highland Park Shooting Suspect Bobby Crimo III Charged With 7 Counts Of First-Degree Murder

(Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)