For three seasons in the Mid-American Conference, quarterbacks had double-trouble when they played the Buffalo Bulls.
“We used to tear stuff up in college,” Falcons defensive end Steven Means said.
Means and Chicago Bears linebacker Khalil Mack played three seasons together (2010-12). Means finished fourth on the school’s all-time sack list and the more celebrated Mack, finished first.
Means, 28, who’s 6-foot-3 and 263 pounds, was drafted by Tampa Bay in the fifth round of the 2012 draft, but has had trouble sticking with a team in the NFL.
With the Falcons down a defensive end, Means, who played 26 snaps against the Packers last week, will get a chance to impress the coaching staff over the final three games of the season, including the home finale against the Arizona Cardinals at 1 p.m. Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
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Means was cut one game into his second season with Tampa Bay. He was signed to Baltimore’s practice squad in October 2014.
He made it to the 53-man roster, but was in inactive. The following season, Means was cut by the Ravens and was signed to Houston’s practice squad. He was with the Texans until the Eagles signed him in December 2015.
Means was on the 53-man roster in 2016 and 2017. He was inactive for the Eagles win over New England in Super Bowl LII.
Overall, he’s played in 31 NFL games with one start. The Falcons heard about Means from his time in Philadelphia.
“Sometimes you just have to get into the right spot and be the right fit,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “We thought he had good quickness. Good speed to go (rush the quarterback).”
Quinn was contacted by another player about Means. So, when he was cut by the Eagles, the Falcons decided to sign him Sept. 10 after safety Keanu Neal was placed on injured reserve.
“One of his teammates up there reached out to me and said, this is your kid of guy,” Quinn said. “He really wanted to back him without anybody knowing it. That meant a lot to me, too.”
Quinn wouldn’t say who the player was, but former Seattle defensive end Michael Bennett, who played for Quinn, is with the Eagles.
“Knowing that there was another teammate that wanted to fight for him and say, hey, this guy can do it,” Quinn said. “He can play. When teammates fight for them behind the scenes without anybody knowing, that’s a pretty strong statement.”
Means finished his career at Buffalo with 186 tackles, 30.5 tackles for losses and 18.5 sacks. In the 2014 draft, everyone went crazy over Mack, who had wrecked Ohio State’s offense on a big stage. He finished his career with 28.5 sacks.
“Everybody was shocked, but I was used to seeing it,” Means said of Mack. “I saw it every day in practice. Then the game time would come and we would go back and forth to see who would get the most sacks and most tackles.”
Falcons defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel asked Means about Mack.
“He’s got that same attitude,” Manuel said. “That’s what is encouraging to me. You see that on the practice field. He has that attitude like Mack.”
The Falcons are keeping a close eye on Means.
“We got him here and trained him in the system,” Quinn said. “He’s got really long arms. He plays bigger than his size is. We thought he could fit into our base defense.”
With Derrick Shelby placed on injured reserve, the Falcons now have room for Means, who was inactive for seven games this season.
“I’m encouraged by what I see,” Quinn said. “He’s got good energy. Good get-off. He’s worked hard against our offensive linemen in practice.”
During a season when injuries have ravaged the defense, Quinn and his staff are looking for players to step forward.
“We are excited,” Quinn said. “We can now picture a role for him. That’s the hardest part sometimes when you get bounced around and sometimes you join a team late, what vision does that team have for the player. Now that Steven has been with us for a while, we have a vision of how to use him. We’re getting some chances here to see what he can do.”
Means was pleased to get some action against Green Bay. He had three tackles and two tackle for losses.
“It was a blessing,” Means said. “A lot of hard work goes into. A lot of just hoping and wishing. When the opportunity comes, you just hope to make the best of it.”
The players were happy for means.
“It’s awesome,” defensive end Brooks Reed said. “He deserves it for sure. He works his butt off in practice more than anyone I know. He brings a lot of energy. ... It’s always fun to see guys get their opportunities.”
Means’ football story, with the advent of the larger practice squads, is becoming more common as teams are able to keep players around for longer periods.
“It’s been a long journey for me after coming into the league in 2013,” Means said. “I’m happy that I shifted my mindset after my second year even though I’m not active I approached the week like I’m active. If I get that award to go out there and play on game day, then, you know, that’s amazing. I always had to stay ready, so I don’t have to get ready.”
Quinn insisted that Means earned the playing time with his hard work in practice.
“I’ve haven’t gotten a lot of opportunities since I’ve been in the league, so I’ve been able to play and celebrate on the practice field,” Means said. “I’m doing that all of the time. So when it happened in the game, I’m going to continue to do the same thing.”
Means admits that it’s been tough to essentially be a professional practice player.
“It’s been a grind,” Means said. “It’s been, I won’t say a roller-coaster experience, because there haven’t been too many moments that have been high individually. But at the same time you have to be grateful for the moment and that God has blessed you with the strength to still be fighting.
“There are not too many people that get the opportunity to keep fighting.”
Mean’s family back in Buffalo has been supportive. His father, Steven Means Sr., a retired firefighter, passed along his love to football to his son.
“A lot of people, my family has been so supportive,” Means said. “My mom and my Dad have been with me since day one. My brothers have been supportive. I have two younger brothers. My pastor. All of my cousins are in tune with it and have been asking me, man when are you going to be active.”
Now is the time. By any Means necessary.