FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons outside linebacker Jonathan Massaquoi laughed when reminded how much emphasis there has been on the team's inability to address its pass-rush woes through free agency or the draft.
"I just feel like, hey, I’m going to continue to let everybody think what they want to think," Massaquoi said. "I have 10 guys on the field with me that trust me. I’ve got a coaching staff, I’ve got an organization that trust me and other guys to get the job done.
"Technically, nobody knows what’s going to happen in September. Technically, nobody’s been here except from the outside looking in. I mean, hey, let them say that. We’re going to be scrutinized whether or not we’re on the top, whether or not we’re down, whether or not we’re doing good. All I can do is get ready for Sept. 7, for New Orleans, and show the world what we’ve been doing."
That is quite a bit of confidence from a guy with just four sacks in 24 NFL games. But Massaquoi isn't caught up in numbers. Neither is Falcons coach Mike Smith, who would prefer to see consistent pressure and the defense getting of the field on third down rather than inflated sack numbers. The Falcons had the league's worst third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert 45.9 percent of the time.
Smith is confident the group of pass-rushers will improve, starting with the 6-foot-2-inch, 264-pound Massaquoi.
"I think he’s maturing, not only as a pass-rusher, but he’s maturing as a football player," Smith said. "I think he has the skill set that we’re looking for to fit into multiple pieces of our defense.
"Jonathan, if you look at his numbers, they’re outstanding: his height, his speed, size, arm length. And he really had a productive second year. I feel like, in my conversations with him, that he left opportunities out there on the field. And I think he understands and realizes that, in retrospect, you don’t get second opportunities."
Indeed, Massaquoi has matured. He pointed to last season's game against the New York Jets -- during which he played 18 snaps at defensive end in a 30-28 loss -- as a perfect example of learning from your mistakes.
"The Jets was my only mismanaged game, mentally," he said. "My mental preparation wasn’t there. And I learned from that game. That’s why I’m in the position I’m in now. The biggest leap for me has been my mental preparation, my mentality coming into camp, my mentality off the field, my mentality coming back to here. All those [have] taken a leap. And it’s put me in this position right now. And I’ve got to continue to ascend."
The onus might be on Massaquoi to elevate his game, but with no elite pass-rusher, applying pressure on opposing quarterbacks has to be a group effort. Fellow outside linebacker Kroy Biermann is underrated when it comes to applying pressure, but he could be the wildcard. Players such as Jonathan Babineaux, Malliciah Goodman, and rookie Ra'Shede Hageman should enhance pressure from inside. And end Osi Umenyiora, who led the team with 7.5 sacks last season, will be used as a designated pass-rusher.
The training camp practices in pads should reveal a lot about if the pass-rushers are capable. Then again, the Falcons are highly unlikely to reveal much about how they plan to attack opposing quarterbacks scheme-wise once the regular season begins.
"The only way your performance is measured in practice is by your effort," Massaquoi said. "It doesn’t matter if you’re beating the guy. It’s your effort. And the end of the day, your effort can override a mistake. Effort’s everything. And attitude is No. 1."