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Central Gwinnett grad Massaquoi making his mark in rough Falcons season

Atlanta Falcons defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi (96) enters the field during Sunday’s game against the Washington Redskins at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. (Photo: Karl L. Moore)

Atlanta Falcons defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi (96) enters the field during Sunday’s game against the Washington Redskins at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. (Photo: Karl L. Moore)

ATLANTA — The Atlanta Falcons have missed on a lot of mid-round draft choices recently, part of the reason for the depth issues that became so obvious this season.

Jonathan Massaquoi — taken in the fifth round out of Troy two years ago — isn’t one of those disappointments, though. In fact, it is quite the opposite.

The Central Gwinnett graduate moved into a starting role at defensive end after the early-season injury to Kroy Biermann and is one of the Falcons not performing at a level under what was expected during this 4-10 year.

Massaquoi had two sacks against the Packers in Green Bay on Dec. 8 and had a third straight strong outing on Sunday against the Washington Redskins.

Going into Monday night’s game at San Francisco against the 49ers, Massaquoi has 41 tackles — 25 of them solo — and is fifth on the team with three sacks.

“Jonathan continues to mature,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “We know that he’s a very athletic guy. I think he’s playing a lot stronger the last three or four weeks. He’s done a good job for us.”

Massquoi played in just half of the Falcons’ games a year ago and most of his time was limited to special teams. But he had a good training camp and has progressed steadily since being forced into action by Biermann’s injury.

“I’m starting to get more confidence in my game,” Massaquoi said. “Sadly, it’s happening at the end of the season. Better late than never.”

Actually, the Falcons have been encouraged all along. There is no question, though, that Massaquoi is making a strong statement that he can be counted on going forward.

“I feel that if I continue to make plays and finish up strong, it’s going to leave the coaches a lot to think about going into next season about what they can do with me and how much more of a role I can play,” Massaquoi said.

After the Green Bay game, Smith was full of praise for the second-year player.

“Jonathan probably had his best game of his Atlanta Falcons career,” the coach said. “Not only on defense, but on special teams. He did a very good job and had two tackles on kickoffs.”

Massaquoi moved over to the opposite end position and started in place of Osi Umenyiora against the Redskins.

He didn’t have a sack, but put pressure on quarterback Kirk Cousins several times and finished with four tackles.

“I think he’s adept at doing it from both sides,” Smith said. “I think that a lot of guys that become really elite pass rushers have had the ability to rush off of both sides. They like to look for those matches that are favorable for them.”

Umenyiora, signed away from the New York Giants as a free agent, is nearing the end of the road in the NFL. But he still leads the Falcons in sacks with 7 ½ and is a mentor to young players like Massaquoi.

That both are from Troy makes the bond even tighter.

“I’ve definitely learned a lot from him,” Massaquoi said. “Every day at practice I take in what he’s learned and try to store it up so I can use it later. Osi’s a great player, a great teammate, a great teacher and a great friend. I’m glad he came here to the Atlanta Falcons.”

Umenyiora, though, was mainly a third-down specialist against the Redskins, while Massaquoi was on the field for the majority of the defensive snaps.

When the Redskins went for two-points to try to win the game after a late touchdown, Massaquoi put pressure on Cousins, whose pass was batted down by rookie cornerback Desmond Trufant.

“For me to be in there when we need a stop at crucial times shows how far I’ve come and that they have trust in me,” Massaquoi said. “It’s a honor to be out there with the game on the line.”

Massaquoi played against the 49ers in the NFC championship game last January, but just on special teams. Now he has a much greater role as the teams meet again, although with much less on the line.

“I’ve learned a lot this season and I’m going to continue to learn more and be the best player I can be,” Massaquoi said.