A holding penalty and a dropped pass set up a 3rd-and-19, though, and everyone on the field knew Packers quarterback Matt Flynn would have to air it out.
St. Louis Rams defensive end Michael Sam knew it was time.
Opportunities like this come so rarely for players like Sam. They get so few reps in today's shorter, one-a-day training camp practices. They get just a few drives in just a few preseason games, perhaps a few dozen snaps, to prove they can play football for a living.
Technically, the Packers mounted six second-half drives—but three of them were only three plays long, and the last was just three straight runs to wind clock. In the middle of the Packers' longest second-half drive, Sam was subbed out.
For a pass-rusher like Sam, every snap where the other team runs the ball to the other side of the field, the quarterback rolls out away from him or fires off a quick slant is a chance wasted, an opportunity taken away. Sam saw this 3rd-and-19 for exactly what it was: a gift-wrapped chance to keep his lifelong dream alive.
He fired off the line, dipped his shoulder, got around the corner and took Flynn down. The NFL's first openly gay player registered his first sack:
His joy and relief were evident. He popped up and celebrated with a huge home-run swing in front of a tiny, roaring Edward Jones Dome crowd.
Announcers are prone to shouting "He just made the team!" whenever a guy on the bubble flashes in preseason. None of the small mob of people in the booth for the NFL Network broadcast said anything like that this time; Sam's hopes for a roster spot might have been doomed the instant his hometown Rams drafted him.
The Rams have one of the deepest, most talented defensive lines in the NFL. Beastly starting ends Robert Quinn and Chris Long are backed up by veterans William Hayes and Eugene Sims; Sam is battling Sammy Brown, Kourtnei Brown and fellow rookie Ethan Westbrooks for, likely, one roster spot.
For just a few drives' worth of work, a two-tackle, one-sack stat line looks fine for Michael Sam. The problem is the four-tackle, one-sack performance by Westbrooks—not to mention the fact that Westbrooks got in earlier, played longer and was the one subbed in for Sam in the middle of that lengthy drive.
Head coach Jeff Fisher and his staff are looking at a lot more than stats and snap counts when deciding who'll make the final roster. They're watching tape.
The eye in the sky will show Sam made plays; however, his coaches aren't just looking for good plays—they're looking for evidence he'll eventually show well against first-string competition.
Sam showed he can rush the passer in the fourth quarter of a preseason game, in an obvious throwing situation. He didn't fare as well when the odds were stacked against him.
He gave good effort against the run, doing a fine job getting leverage and holding the edge. However, he wasn't disruptive, didn't stuff anyone and didn't run any plays down from the back side. When he was double-teamed, he was blown off the ball, either in rushing or passing situations. He got great penetration up the middle on a stunt—but the Packers were running a screen and lobbed it over his head just in time.
Sam, too often and too quickly, looked to get upfield and around the corner, as he did on his sack. That works well for deep dropbacks and shotgun snaps, but one-trick ponies won't succeed in the NFL.
He doesn't have a great first step, nor much power to the inside. Sometimes, he tries to juke defenders with a flat-footed, side-to-side shimmy, like a kid trying to psych out a defender in a game of driveway basketball. At this level, that's just wasting time he doesn't have before the quarterback gets rid of it.
Does Michael Sam have what it takes to be a starting-caliber NFL defensive end? Maybe. Some of the holes in his game are a matter of teaching and development, and some of his strengths can be honed even further.
Watching the Rams defensive line work over the Packers offensive line, though, it's hard to see how he'll have the time and opportunity to learn and grow before the Rams have to make a decision on his future.
Even if the draft's best story doesn't have a storybook ending, Sam has already proved he can compete at this level. Even if The Turk comes for Sam's digital playbook before Week 1, his preseason performance will likely earn him an opportunity to make his mark somewhere else.
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