CLEVELAND -- As the preseason wears on and St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher's gradual-build approach to it takes hold, snaps are increasingly difficult to come by for defensive end Michael Sam and other rookies hoping to crack the initial 53-man roster.
That means fewer chances for Sam to impress Fisher and his staff. It also means Sam has no choice but to make the most of the chances he's afforded.
To Sam's credit, he seems to be doing that quite well as pursues a potential ninth -- or even 10th -- roster spot carved out for defensive linemen. On Saturday night at FirstEnergy Stadium, Sam drew plenty of attention by twice sacking Cleveland quarterback Johnny Manziel in the Rams' 33-14 win.
Defensive end Chris Long even joked about the internet breaking because of it. While the jokes were funny, Sam's recent work in games is no laughing matter.
"With the plays you have, you’ve got to make sure you perform," Sam said. "I thought I came up big in the fourth quarter."
Under Fisher's guidance, starters generally get more reps as the preseason wears on, leaving less work for the backups. It also means facing lesser players later in the game. Sam offers a prime example, entering the first preseason game against New Orleans in the first quarter but having to wait until the fourth to play against the Browns. He played 19 snaps on the night.
Sam wasted little time making his presence felt when he entered. Playing his most comfortable left end spot, Sam beat second-string tackle Martin Wallace around the edge, using both arms to knock away Wallace's feeble attempt to block him.
Often labeled purely a run-and-chase player who gets most of his sacks on effort, Sam has made strides when it comes to hand usage and fundamentals according to Long.
"He’s gotten a lot better with that," Long said. "When he came in he was very raw; he’s still raw but he continues to work at it. He’s like the rest of these rookies out there competing every day and he was able to make a play tonight and that was great for him."
Sam drew a strong reaction from his teammates on the sideline when he followed the sack by doing his normal celebration capped off by an imitation of Manziel's money sign.
"If you sack Johnny, you’ve got to do it," Sam said. "At least once."
Sam actually had a second opportunity to do it, though it faded quickly because his second sack came on the game's final play. Sam appeared to wrangle Manziel down with about three other Rams, but the unofficial press-box statistics credited him for the takedown. So long as someone is willing to give it to him, Sam is happy to take it.
"That last sack belongs to me as well," Sam said. "So that’s good. Because I need ‘em. I need ‘em."
Indeed, regardless of the competition or the snap count, Sam can use every big play possible as he continues fighting for a roster spot. The Rams appear to have eight defensive line spots pretty well locked in, and though they've carried nine in their two years under coach Jeff Fisher, undrafted rookie Ethan Westbrooks has performed every bit as good or better than Sam throughout the preseason.
There's a chance the Rams could go even heavier on the defensive line considering some injuries and versatility at other positions, but that's no guarantee. The only way for Sam to make it is to earn it.
"I can only control what I can control," Sam said. "I thought I got better today. I’m not only interviewing for the Rams but also interviewing for the other 31 teams. As long as I keep getting better, I have got one more week to get better and we’ll go from that."