FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — When Rob Ryan took over as the New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator last year and installed the 3-4 defense, he turned to a little-known player at the critical spot of outside linebacker — a position from which the Saints were hoping to generate more of a pass rush.
That player was the 6-foot-2, 258-pound Junior Galette, an undrafted free agent who formerly played defensive end and was entering his fourth season. Galette went on to post 12 sacks in 2013, one season after totaling five.
Enter the 2014 Atlanta Falcons. As they continue to pledge to use multiple fronts, one of the most noticeable changes during OTAs is the move of 6-foot-5, 264-pound defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi, a former fifth-round pick who is entering his third pro season, to outside linebacker in the 3-4 scheme. Massaqoui, who has worked with the first-team defense during OTAs, had four sacks last season.
If the Falcons can get similar results out of Massaquoi this year with a bit of a positional and schematic tweak as their NFC South Division arch-rivals did last season with Galette, then Mike Smith and his staff would be ecstatic.
So, for that matter, would Massaqoui.
"As you see, coming back this year, being a starter on the base defense, the more repetitions I get, the more chances I get to get to the QB," Massaqoui said. "Hopefully, I can turn those four sacks and double that number — even triple — and become a force on this team, become a leader that I’m meant to be."
Last year, the Falcons invested a lot of effort during OTAs and training camp into Kroy Biermann, so that they could flex him from a 4-3 end to a 3-4 outside linebacker. That experiment blew up in the second game when Biermann suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon tear.
Massaquoi was Biermann’s backup, so he stepped into his role, albeit without being able to play the 3-4 outside linebacker, as Biermann did. That left the defense with fewer options and more often in its traditional 4-3 set.
"When he kind of took over that role, he continued to do a good job of it," defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said of Massaquoi’s taking over for Biermann and then attempting to perform some of 3-4 duties. "It starts out slow, always. He did some of it but we didn’t do a large variety of things with him. He’s got the measurable things that allow him to do it and then, mentally, Massaquoi does a good job of picking those things up because it does complicate the guy’s job. It doesn’t complicate the other people’s" — the tackles on the defensive line — "because they’re just doing the same things they always do but he’s got to learn a little more."
This offseason, Massaquoi has begun his indoctrination into playing the 3-4 outside linebacker on the right side and playing in space. At times, he works with new defensive line coach Bryan Cox to work on pass rush techniques. At times he works with new outside linebackers coach Mark Collins, who steps into a newly created position that is somewhat unique to the 3-4, and, at others, to practice coverage, he works with linebackers coach Glenn Pires. Pires said learning to play pass coverages is the biggest challenge for Massaquoi.
Informed after last season of the new role the team was conceiving for him, Massaquoi worked with a personal trainer, with team strength and conditioning coaches and with other NFL players like former Georgia Bulldog Justin Houston, a very successful 3-4 outside linebacker for Kansas City who posted 11 sacks last season.
Massaquoi said he wanted to show the Falcons coaches his continued development.
"This is my third year," he said. "Not too long ago, I was in these rookies’ shoes. Going through all the defensive situations last year and coming back this year, the biggest thing as a young player is you want to show growth, you want to show maturity, you want to show more knowledge on the field, knowing formations, knowing where the QB’s eyes is, being a step ahead of the QB. Just showing them that and continuing to build trust and faith in me and my talents and allowing me to play football."
With the Falcons’ offseason acquisitions — notably nose tackle Paul Soliai, who played in a 3-4 with Miami, and end Tyson Jackson, who played in a 3-4 in Kansas City — much has been made of whether the Falcons’ base defense will be a 3-4 or a 4-3, as it has been in most of Smith’s first six seasons. This talk has mostly served to irritate Smith, who, on Wednesday, went to great pains to guarantee that, no matter what his defense looks like, it will have 11 players on the field.
What will happen in particular is that the Falcons are going to tailor their defense to each situation that presents itself. On first-and-10, you might see a 3-4. In obvious running situations, you might see eight players in the box. In obvious passing situations, you will see five defensive backs — sometimes with two linebackers and sometimes with three. In some situations, the Falcons will employ the 4-3. Personnel will vary with the situation.
It’s the continuation of a trend of specialization and, if you will, "situationalization," in the league.
"The league has become so matchup," Pires said. "Whatever they put on offense, we’ve got to match on defense, whether it’s personnel, whether it’s scheme. â¦ What do we want to play coverage versus them with those guys in the game? What do we want to do pressure versus them? What do we want to do in the red zone against them? So my answer to your question is, yes, it’s going to continue to be specialized."
As a result, the more versatile players like Massaqoui the Falcons can have, the more complex they will be able to make their defense and to suit it to the various challenges that opposing offenses present.
Massaquoi was thrown into the fire last season. This season, more will be expected of him.
"For me as a young player, ascendant in this league, I had to click on fast," he said. "It was no more of that backup role and having to take time, ‘OK, OK.’ It was more like, ‘Boom, boom, boom!’ So as I finished the season off strong, four sacks, 50-plus tackles, I just wanted them to take into consideration how I finished up strong … my potential and, obviously, they believe in that and, hey, I’m in the starting lineup and hopefully I can work for my team and make plays and get the fans of Atlanta to come here and cheer us on."
Nolan was asked a loaded question: Is Massaqoui ready for the big time?
"Well, I don’t know," he demurred, before figuring out the trap and how the media works and giving his own headline, "Nolan says: ‘Ready for Big Time.’"
Maybe Massaquoi is. But he’ll have to prove it on the field.