More often than not, the obscurity of the fourth preseason game is where a player's NFL dreams go to die.
But for Ravens defensive tackle Michael Pierce, it happened to be where they were revived, if not downright cemented.
For all intents and purposes, Pierce's pro career emerged with a play that epitomized the hustle small-college players, like Pierce, need and teams like the Ravens want.
Late in the second quarter of the preseason finale in New Orleans, the host Saints and Ravens were locked in a 6-6 tie, with the Saints taking possession at their own 9-yard line. Quarterback Luke McCown dropped back to pass, stopping his retreat just in front of his own goal line.
Meanwhile, Pierce deftly used his 6-foot, 339-pound frame and quick hands to shove the center to his left, then duck quickly back under him in the opposite direction, keeping his feet moving all the while. He reached McCown at the goal line, grabbed him around the waist and popped the ball loose.
The predictable dogpile ensued, but seconds later, it was Pierce who had fallen on the ball for a tie-breaking touchdown that was part of a 16-point, second-quarter blitz and a 23-14 win that cemented the Ravens' unbeaten preseason.
"The play happened real fast," Pierce said after the win against the Saints. "I got great pressure on the quarterback and sacked him, and then the ball popped free. Since it was on the goal line, I just noticed the ball and covered it up for a touchdown.
"We all know that, as rookies, the cut is coming. Everyone in the locker room has worked real hard to make the team. As for me, there's nothing else I can do, and I hope I've proved to the coaching staff that I deserve a spot on the team."
Head coach John Harbaugh and his staff already had an idea about Pierce, signing him as a rookie free agent after the 2016 draft concluded. His name was not called on draft weekend primarily because he had attended Samford, a private university in Birmingham, Ala., that houses a mere 3,100 undergraduate students.
But the public administration major, who transferred to Samford after two years at Tulane University in his native New Orleans, proved to be durable (47 games, 32 starts), productive (24 tackles for losses, 3.5 sacks) and notable among those who watched him (first-team All-Southern Conference).
In college, Pierce carried the ball four times and scored two touchdowns in goal-line situations; whether that dimension ever comes into play, as in the case of former Chicago Bear lineman William Perry, remains to be seen.
However, regarding Pierce’s defensive play, he has attributes reminiscent of Baltimore linemen, past and current
Despite his size, Pierce -- who turned 24 Nov. 6 -- combines former Ravens nose tackles Haloti Ngata's quick feet with Kelly Gregg's tenacity and teammate Brandon Williams' strength, all necessary ingredients to fit into the Ravens' run-stuffing tradition.
Even though Baltimore primarily plays a 3-4 defense, there have been times when Williams and Pierce have been on the field together in an alignment reminiscent of the team's 4-3 era that lined up Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams in the middle of a stout front seven.
The Ravens' defensive line is perhaps the best and deepest unit on the team, and it could benefit from Pierce's presence should Williams leave in free agency after the current season.
"Pierce is my guy," Williams said. "We call him 'The Juggernaut.' I'm taller than him though. He's short and squatty. He's doing a great job, especially coming in here as a rookie free agent and making his way on the roster.
"Then, at the same time, [he is] getting reps in. He's doing a great job. Anytime I can help him, I always tell him this or that, anything. I take him under my wing and let him know. I commend him for just working his butt off and getting out here and doing it every day."
After Pierce's big play in New Orleans, he had to sustain that momentum to crack a roster at a position unit loaded with proven talent like Williams, Timmy Jernigan, Lawrence Guy and Brent Urban.
And he did -- marking the 13th straight year an undrafted player has made the Week One Ravens roster, tied for the league's second-longest current streak -- and in such an emphatic manner that someone from a larger school who actually was drafted, fourth-round Michigan product Willie Henry, has been relegated to inactive status for most of the season.
According to Pro Football Focus, Pierce was the top-rated rookie defensive lineman in the league through seven weeks and the ninth-best rookie at any position, one spot ahead of first-round offensive lineman Laremy Tunsill of the Miami Dolphins.
"Pierce made this list early on in the season before a few average weeks, and is back again after a [fine] performance against the Jets [Oct. 23]," PFF wrote. "What's maybe most impressive for the rookie isn't that he's stopping the run at a high level -- it's that he's already adding value as a pass-rusher from the [nose tackle] position."
Through the season's first eight games, Pierce has played 158 of a possible 438 defensive snaps (36.1 percent), including a 31-snap, five-tackle performance against the Jets. Pierce also contributed five special teams snaps that day and recorded one of his two sacks.
According to defensive coordinator Dean Pees, it's simply proof that if someone can play the game, his collegiate origins are irrelevant.
"A good athlete is a good athlete, and what happens is they rise to the level of the competition that they play," Pees said. "What happens is, they play at a certain level, and when they come in here, because they're still a good athlete, they rise to that level. There's just been so many of those guys around the league that I think the small school syndrome ... I don't buy that anymore. An athlete is an athlete.
"[Pierce has] come from an unknown [place]. First of all, making the team ... I don't know if anybody thought, probably early on in OTAs or when we brought him in, that he'd be that. Now he shows up enough in preseason and camp that he makes the team. After that, he just works hard out there. I can't say enough good things about him. I'm really, really pleased with where he is."
There is no doubt many undrafted players would give anything to be where Pierce is right now, having made an NFL roster after making a play in his hometown during the preseason game in New Orleans.
"It was a real special feeling," Pierce said. "And with me being from this area ... it was great for me to have that happen with some family and friends watching."
For big players like Pierce who make big plays, no situation has proven too obscure.
has been covering professional football since 1994
Issue 227: November 2016