As rookie defensive end Steven Means took the practice field with his fellow Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Saturday morning, a member of the coaching staff pulled him off to the side to share a little advice. "Just go today," said Pass Rush Specialist Bryan Cox. "Just go."
That was music to Means' errors, and it came from a very credible source. Cox played 12 seasons in the NFL and racked up 51.5 sacks and three Pro Bowl appearances. And, like Means, he entered the NFL as a mostly unheralded fifth-round draft pick out of a small school; Cox was the 113th overall pick, out of Western Illinois, while Means went 147th overall, out of Buffalo.
"He knows I know my plays, so all I've got to do is go out there and play my game. That's pretty much what I was doing today."
The approach paid off, and rather dramatically so on at least one snap during a full-team drill. On the play in question, Means was rushing the passer but was still about five or six feet away when the quarterback began to throw. The 6-4, 260-pound rookie reacted immediately and instinctively, leaping high and plucking the pass out of the air. From there, it was a direct route to the opposite end zone for a remarkable pick-six that had the whole team buzzing.
"It excited the whole defense," said Means with a big smile after practice. "A lot of the offensive players even came to me afterward and said, 'Good job.' It was a good feeling. That's why we're all here, though. We're all professionals, we're all athletes, and they expect me to make that play. And when you make it, you make an impression."
Means has been trying to make an impression since he arrived in April, and for the most part he's drawn the same assessment from Head Coach Greg Schiano. Namely that Means is obviously talented but, like almost all rookies do, he's had his ups and downs. Schiano gave the newcomer a large share of snaps in Thursday's preseason opener against Baltimore – and they came earlier in the game than they normally would have due to starter
"Steven, he certainly has the ability," said Schiano. "He made a heck of a play today. He just needs to keep getting better. He’s a really fine talent that needs to hone his game.”
For Means, the most important part of Thursday's experience was getting an exposure to the NFL game, and learning specifically where his own game needs to improve.
"Just to get out there and get the feel for it was amazing," he said. "I felt right at home. I'm looking forward to playing in a lot more games.
"The coaches just told me, 'Get off the ball more. Get around the edge more instead of running down the middle of the man.' That's something that I took into consideration and I started applying it today."
It's doubtful any coach told Means to leap into the path of a bullet pass from five feet away, or that it was anything but instinct that made the rookie react that way. But in a less specific sense, Means was following Cox's pre-practice advice, and just letting his talent take over. The Buccaneers hope he can eventually use that talent to make the same sort of impact on game day.