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Rams' Michael Sam after solid NFL debut: 'I can play in this league'

ST. LOUIS — On the fourth play of his NFL career, the rookie pass rusher for the St. Louis Rams burned around from his left defensive end spot and nearly got his hands on New Orleans Saints quarterback Ryan Griffin for a sack, instead forcing Griffin to hurry up his pass that fell incomplete.

The public-address announcer delivered the good news to the sparse preseason crowd at the Edward Jones  Dome: "Pressure on the play by Michael Sam."

It didn't matter that fellow Rams rookie Lamarcus Joyner had committed a defensive holding penalty that wiped out the play. Sam had arrived in the NFL.

"I can play in this league. That’s the most important thing," Sam said of his biggest takeaway from his first NFL game action. "I was kind of nervous. I got some nerves out. … But I can play in this league."

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The Rams' locker room was almost entirely cleared out before Sam spoke. He could be seen talking to coaches and teammates prior to addressing the media, looking stern and focused. By the time he emerged, Sam's trademark smile came out, too.

"As a child, I never thought I would be here," he said. "After I took my first snap, I just thought it was amazing."

Sam played 23 snaps (unofficially) in the Rams' 26-24 preseason-opening loss to the New Orleans Saints, officially collecting one tackle and one quarterback hurry (per NFL stats) in what all around was — despite the somewhat misleading numbers — a quite respectable debut.

"I could have gotten two sacks," Sam said. "One of them, I thought it was a screen and I was just upset [not to get it]."

By design, the Rams wasted little time putting their seventh-round pick, the one who has become a national story because of his sexuality, on the field. On third down of the Rams' second defensive series of the game, Sam came on as a third-down rusher at the same left defensive end spot at which he was named co-Defensive Player of the Year in the SEC last season at Missouri. He twisted inside on an end-tackle stunt on his first play, but the Saints' quick pass fell incomplete.

Sam played the majority of the snaps in the remaining three defensive series in the first half, giving way a few plays to second-year DE Sammy Brown. Lining up in 6-, 7- and 9-techniques, all from the left side, Sam made a few spotlight plays in the first half before tailing off a bit.

On his fifth play on defense, Sam pressured Griffin through a hole in the Saints' blocking scheme and forced him to flush the pocket and throw another incomplete pass that was borderline intentional grounding, but ruled to be outside the tackle box.

Sam said he didn't even hear his name called out over the loud speaker, which caused the small but vocal crowd (announced attendance of 54,850 but nowhere close) to erupt.

"I didn’t really hear the crowd," Sam said. "When I am in game mode, I stay in game mode. But if the crowd was yelling for me, I think that’s pretty cool." 

Then on the second play of the next series, with the Rams up 7-3, Sam knifed through Saints right tackle Thomas Welch and hit running back Khiry Robinson in the backfield for what could have been a loss, but Sam couldn't bring him down for what ended up as a no-gain run and a nice play nonetheless.

"I make plays," Sam said. "That’s what you’re supposed to do."

That's where Sam's play peaked this Friday night. Much like his training-camp experience to this point, Sam started well and tapered off. He did little in his final dozen snaps or so, although the Saints were going to a quicker-paced offense and they ran to the other side of the field a number of times.

If there's an obvious observation, it's that Sam's lateral quickness is unimpressive and he's tight in the hips. Brown clearly was much faster off the ball, so Sam's motor will have to continue to run hot and he'll have to show he can use his hands well to disengage from blocks. He was stuck on two double teams and also failed to move his feet quickly enough to get cut by Saints fullback Austin Johnson on a goal-line play.

Brown said he doesn't feel like he and Sam are fighting for one spot.

"None of us are treating it that way," Brown told Shutdown Corner. "You don't know who the [roster] cut is going to come down to. So they just roll the ball out there and we play."  

Rams defensive end Chris Long, who intercepted a pass to cap off his one series of action, is the leader of the defensive linemen. He took Sam aside on the sideline and talked through the game with him and how to attack his opponent.

"It’s the first time you’re going to play somebody in the pros, he’s got to make adjustments and O-linemen do that too," Long said. "I wanted him to set his rushes up and little things like that, but he’s going to be fine. He’s doing a nice job.

"I told him once you show him one move, he’s going to be sitting on it and expecting it. Just set things up and come back with power. Pass rush is a fluid thing that’s constantly changing through the game. He’ll get more opportunities to learn that as he goes."

Overall, though, Long was impressed with the rookie's performance.

"Mike did a nice job," Long said. "He’s practiced really well so far.

"He’s unpolished, like a lot of rookies, but he pleasantly surprises you when he gets out there in a game situation."

Sam's night was done prior to the start of the fourth quarter.

Rams head coach Jeff Fisher has maintained that Sam must make an impact on special teams and they could be his ticket to the NFL. But that seems odd considering Sam made appearances Friday night on only the extra-point and field-goal block teams, as well as the Rams' kickoff-return unit. He did little there to stand out in this game.

More likely, Sam will make it in this league as a pass rusher. It's the one football trait he possesses that is a) in short supply in the NFL; and b) he does most naturally. Sam was pleased with his first game, but he knows he needs to finish. He was just that close to collecting a few sacks, but overall he considered his first night a success.

"You know, the hardest critic is going to be myself," he said. I think I could have done a little bit better, but I am not mad about my first game.

"I got the butterflies out. Next game I’ll be more focused and relaxed."

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Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at edholm@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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