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Corey Peters off to strong start in 2014

Coming off surgery for a torn Achilles tendon, Corey Peters has been one of the Falcons' best defensive linemen this year.

Kevin C. Cox

Just when it felt like things couldn't get worse, the camera panned to Atlanta's bench. There sat Corey Peters, tears in his eyes, afraid of what he might learn in the coming days.

The burly defensive tackle, one of the team's few bright spots, had just been helped off the field. He appeared to damage his lower leg.

The Falcons were in San Francisco that night, and would go on to lose to the Niners, 34-24. Of course, the outcome didn't matter much; Atlanta had long been out of contention. What did matter greatly, however, was the health of those needed to right the ship next season.

Peters was considered one of those crucial pieces, and this injury came at a particularly unfortunate time: His first pro contract was about to expire, and he was due for a hefty, well-deserved pay raise.

He wouldn't get that coveted job security. Peters tore his Achilles tendon, and just like that his future was unclear. Such is the life of a professional athlete. One moment you're on track to sign a huge deal, then suddenly you're wondering where your next paycheck will come from.

Sometimes, injuries like this throw careers off the rails. Sometimes they are mere bumps on the road. After a successful surgery the Falcons signed a repaired Peters to a modest one-year deal, hoping he'd follow the latter of those two paths.

So far, that appears to be the case.

Flash forward to Sept. 18, just last week, when the Falcons and Buccaneers squared off at the Georgia Dome. Early in the second quarter, Tampa QB Mike Glennon took a snap, dropped back, scanned the field...and was dragged to the ground.

It was Peters who brought down the helpless quarterback -- giving the Falcons their second sack of the game.

A few minutes earlier, Josh McCown was pressured deep in the Bucs' end of the field and chucked an errant pass, one that was picked off by Kemel Ishmael and taken to the house. Who else but Peters disrupted McCown and forced him to get rid of the ball so soon.

Following two mediocre showings, Atlanta's defense finally showed what it's capable of, and big ol' 91 was one of the driving forces behind this success.

Peters played on 34 of 60 snaps against Tampa, registering a sack, two QB hits and four tackles for loss. Those numbers earned him a 2.4 rating from Pro Football Focus -- good for fourth on the Falcons' defense.

Despite missing Week 1, Peters' cumulative PFF score (3.3) is third on Mike Nolan's unit, behind only Paul Soliai (4.0) and Robert Alford (3.7).

Indeed, the Kentucky product has come a long way in the past nine months.

"I feel great," Peters said. "No real lingering effects. I am a lot better than when I first found out. With the way the surgeries are coming, they've made a lot of progress. It's not what it used to be. I feel good."

Atlanta's front seven remains a weakness, one that has been well-documented over the last few years. Having someone like Peters -- a guy who can get after the QB on a consistent basis -- will be essential moving forward.

Remember: Peters was second on the team in sacks last year with five. Osi Umenyiora, who finished first (7.5), hasn't been much of a threat in 2014. Peters may be the best pass rusher on the Falcons right now.

And Peters has shown he can stop the run, as well. Heading into Sunday's contest in Minnesota, he ranks second on the Falcons in PFF's Run Defense metric (1.6), ahead of everyone but Dwight Lowry (1.9). It's tough to put too much stock in these numbers, as they are subjective and come from a small sample size, but they are definitely encouraging.

If Peters continues to perform at such a high level and maintain good health, it shouldn't be long before he's rewarded financially. Given the way he's playing, and given everything he's been through of late, he'd certainly deserve it.

"I'm really enjoying the game much, much more than I have in the past," Peters told Vaughn McClure of "I think I was kind of taking it for granted. And when I got injured, I said that I would never do that again.

"I'm just enjoying it all, man."