Stefon Diggs Has Become One of the NFL's Most Lethal Deep Threats in 2019
Lions cornerback Darius Slay was in perfect coverage. He was running stride-for-stride with Stefon Diggs, with only a couple yards of space between Diggs and the sideline.
It didn't matter.
Kirk Cousins put the ball where only Diggs could get it, and the Vikings' star receiver made an incredible catch before tumbling out of bounds at the three-yard line. The end result was a 44-yard gain that set up a Dalvin Cook touchdown right before halftime. It was the Vikings' biggest offensive play in their 20-7 win over the Lions last Sunday.
For Cousins and Diggs, it was just the latest big play in a season full of them. That catch was Diggs' seventh of 40 or more yards this season, which is tied for the second-most in the NFL. Diggs has become one of the most lethal deep threats in the NFL this season, and the Vikings offense has benefited greatly from it.
"I just be like, ‘there he goes again,'" Dalvin Cook said. "Diggs being Diggs. He’s going to make plays, he can change the scoreboard at any given time. Diggs is the type of player, he’s an energy giver. He makes plays to spark us and get us going."
It hasn't always been like this. Catching deep balls was a part of Diggs' game during his first four years in the NFL, but only a small part. More frequently, he was used as a chain-mover in short and intermediate routes. Last season – his first playing with Cousins – he averaged a career-low in yards per reception, being used primarily in quick-hitting routes by then-offensive coordinator John DeFilippo. Diggs posted a career-high 102 catches, but they rarely went for big plays.
Yards Per Target
Yards Per Reception
40+ Yard Catches
That was a function of the Vikings' offensive scheme, which used short passes basically as an extension of the running game.
"Last year we were throwing a lot of passes that were screens behind the line of scrimmage or a smoke route or a 5-yard hitch, so those are designed to be a 5 or 6-yard catch," Cousins said. "They’re not designed to be a 17-yard catch. So some of it just comes down to, when you’re targeting him, what routes is he running? I think last year we were throwing the ball enough that that was kind of replacing the run game at times, and as a result you had a lot of 3, 4, 5-yard completions."
With DeFilippo's scheme not proving effective, he was fired by the team late in the 2018 season. This offseason, the Vikings revamped their offense entirely. The scheme implemented by Kevin Stefanski and Gary Kubiak has prioritized running the ball and using play-action passes.
That's led to a huge season for Cook. It has also meant that while Diggs is seeing fewer targets and catches, his catches are producing big plays at a much higher rate.
"This year it’s been a little bit bigger, explosive plays that we’ve run," Cousins said. "When you run the football quite a bit, then when you do throw the ball they’re going to be more aggressive, more down-the-field shots."
The increase in deep-ball opportunities for Diggs has allowed his elite talent in that area to shine through more than it ever has. He has all of the necessary attributes a game-changing deep threat needs to have, and teams are finding that out just about every week.
"I think the big thing with him is he’s got big, strong hands and he’s got really good acceleration," Mike Zimmer said. "I think he does a nice job at the line of scrimmage when people are trying to press him and then he can accelerate and run away from them. He does a nice job of getting the defender on his back hip a lot of times on these go balls."
The Vikings' increased usage of play-action passes – and Cousins' talent in that area – has been one of the biggest reasons for the surge in big plays from Diggs. Four of his five touchdowns this year have gone for 45 or more yards. Three of those four have come off of some sort of play-action.
When Cousins is able to have time to let Diggs run down the field, he's one of the more accurate deep-ball throwers in the league. And when the ball gets in the air, Diggs has an uncanny ability to track it, adjust if needed, and make the play.
Diggs' catches are down this season, but he doesn't have an issue with that. As long as he keeps getting chances to make plays down the field, he's happy with his role. With 997 receiving yards already, Diggs will blow past his career-high of 1,021 he set last season.
"Throughout the game I won’t get many [looks]," Diggs said. "But when I do I’m just trying to take full advantage. Just making the plays when they come my way."
With Adam Thielen missing a huge chunk of the season, Diggs' big-play ability has been crucial to the offense continuing to thrive. The Vikings are up from 20th in yards per game last season to 11th this year. More importantly, they appear to be headed back to the playoffs this season. Speaking of big plays, anyone remember what Diggs did the last time the Vikings made the playoffs?