It was one of those moments that united Falcons fans in a collective state of anxiety. Tampa Bay quarterback Josh McCown delivered a strike to wide receiver Mike Evans, who came down with a reception and got both feet in bounds at Atlanta's four yard line. Down 17-27 -- a fortunate deficit, considering Devin Hester's dropped touchdown -- the Bucs were alive with 1:56 left in regulation.
Tampa is arguably the worst team in the NFL, and little time remained on the clock, but one must forgive us for any pessimism exhibited as replays of Evans' catch flashed on TV. After all, the Falcons had just lost five straight and, two weeks prior, blew a 21-0 lead to Detroit.
We had seen this movie before. Or so we thought.
McCown dropped back on the ensuing snap and threw to Vincent Jackson, but cornerback Robert Alford closed in and swatted the ball out of harm's way. A nearby official ruled the pass incomplete.
The official was wrong.
After seeing Alford's PBU, safety Dwight Lowery, who was assigned to man coverage elsewhere, dove for an interception. Upon further review it was clear Lowery's hands were sandwiched between turf and pigskin. This gave the Falcons possession and, ultimately, the win.
That triumph might not have felt important when Matt Ryan assembled his offense into victory formation. It moved Atlanta to 3-6, and a playoff berth still felt like a pipe dream.
Of course, it feels quite different now, with the NFC South title game slated for this weekend.
Lowery's pick may or may not have been the difference between 3-6 and 2-7. Nonetheless, it was a prime example of the skill set he brings to the table -- something the Falcons sorely missed in 2013.
A massive upgrade
Atlanta's secondary was a major concern heading into 2014. Anyone who endured last season could tell you as much. Those concerns were amplified when William Moore was hurt, and even more so when Robert Alford struggled and eventually went on the shelf.
So, as expected, the Falcons have been torched through the air. No team has allowed more passing yards against.
Yet, despite this adversity, despite all the frustrating third down conversions Atlanta's surrendered, Lowery has been a calming presence in the defensive backfield.
In total the San Jose State product has registered 77 tackles, two forced fumbles, two interceptions and a sack on the year. True, Lowery's weaknesses have been exposed on several occasions. He didn't fare well in Week 1 against New Orleans; his performance vs. Pittsburgh was one to forget, as well.
But sprinkled throughout the schedule are games in which he thrived.
This success can be visualized from his Pro Football Focus ratings, which could be the best quantitative info available for defensive backs. It's worth noting that these grades are imprecise; however, Lowery's PFF numbers do a solid job illustrating the extent of his mistakes, or lack thereof.
Notice the peaks and valleys are not steep, but mostly flat. An important truth can be gleaned here: while Lowery hasn't been spectacular, he's been relatively consistent. That's more than could be said about his predecessor.
For added perspective, let's overlap his cumulative PFF scores with Thomas DeCoud's from 2013.
This data paints a clear picture: Lowery has been objectively better than the man he replaced by a significant margin.
Shocking, I know.
The Falcons couldn't ask for much more from Lowery, who has been a journeyman, has a history of head injuries and sat out most of last season on IR.
And, given the options available last spring/summer, Atlanta is extremely lucky to have him on board. Bereft of adequate safeties, it's hard to imagine the Falcons clinching a playoff berth without the seven-year veteran.
True, Lowery is not an ideal starter. But he provides crucial stability that may otherwise not exist. For this, he should be commended.