Are Bills trying to prove they don’t need Stefon Diggs? Devin McCourty has thoughts


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As a New England Patriots safety, Devin McCourty saw hours of Stefon Diggs film. McCourty studied how Diggs was used, where he lined up, how he ran his routes, his mannerisms, his tells.

Now a “Football Night in America” studio analyst, McCourty has spent much of this week prepping for the Buffalo Bills at Miami Dolphins showdown on NBC Sports by watching Diggs’ role in the offense.

“To me,” McCourty said, “it just seems like bad football.”

McCourty knows good football. He won three Super Bowls, played in five and reached eight straight AFC Championship Games. He made 229 starts and intercepted 37 passes.

Based on what he has observed with expert eyes and a mind that has spent time mulling how to stop Diggs himself, McCourty has a theory.

“I think there’s bigger issues going on there,” McCourty said. “I think their offense is trying to prove to Diggs that they don’t need him.”

McCourty has heard the Bills’ explanations for Diggs’ reduced usage and production but cannot understand what coach Sean McDermott, interim offensive coordinator Joe Brady and even quarterback Josh Allen are talking about.

The organization insists Diggs isn’t hurt. He hasn’t been on the injury report recently. McDermott says Diggs’ stats are down because the football simply is going where Allen’s progressions take it. Brady says Diggs is on the sidelines more because of personnel packages or because Diggs had just run a long route and needed to rest.

“They’re not even saying the things that make sense,” McCourty said. “They have a reason why they’re not doing it, and they just got to say whatever they got to say to get through the season.”

McCourty, having played his entire career for Bill Belichick, emphasized teams don’t owe reporters or fans any explanations that could disrupt the mission of winning, especially given Diggs’ mercurial past. The organization has always tried to tread lightly around Diggs’ feelings. We still don’t know why Diggs was upset over the offseason, the situation handled in house and too delicate (or silly) to divulge. In September, Diggs took to social media about “hurtful” and “insulting” comments a Bills team employee made on a hot mic regarding how Diggs handles media obligations. Two months later, he chose not to defend the Bills or Allen when his brother, Dallas Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs, tweeted shots about them after an embarrassing loss to the Denver Broncos.

So, McCourty understands how obfuscation and red herrings are sometimes necessary to keep the peace.

“Now that I’m done,” McCourty said with a laugh, “I’m sitting here, waiting, like: ‘Man, I know they’re probably going to get rid of Diggs. I can’t wait to find out what really happened.’ But that’s just how it is.”

McCourty described a situation where everyone is to blame. He said if there’s no deeper reason Buffalo hasn’t revealed, then Brady’s refusal to keep his second-highest-paid player on the field is coaching malpractice. As a result of the diminished role, McCourty detects Diggs has checked out mentally, and that’s the player’s fault.

The Bills have been consistent in explaining that, when Diggs isn’t on the field, it’s according to plan. But McCourty wondered if Diggs occasionally taps himself out of games, and the team is covering for him to keep things as calm as possible.

“He absolutely kills the DBs,” McCourty said of his Diggs film review. “He’s wide-open. But as far as him being engaged, no. When I watch, I don’t think he’s as engaged as he could be.

“When you look at top receivers, the way they’re engaged is by getting the ball and being a part of the game plan. That’s why you see teams throw wide receiver screens early in the game or quick slants or quick stop routes because it’s to get the guy going. We’ve watched that through the history of the NFL.

“We’ve created these receivers and paid them all this money to catch the ball, and when they don’t, they turn into, like, ‘I don’t feel like I can help this team.’”

McCourty wants to know how Diggs can be absent on any third down when the Bills ostensibly have been in do-or-die mode since before Thanksgiving. Yet that’s what happened on the Bills’ third possession Sunday. On second-and-10 from the Bills’ 38-yard line, Diggs ran a 12-yard stop route, then took off upfield when Allen scrambled. Allen’s pass hit Patriots safety Kyle Dugger in the back 27 yards away.

Diggs went to the sideline for third-and-10. Trent Sherfield entered and dropped Allen’s pass in the left flat. Buffalo punted.

“I was watching the film and thought: ‘Damn! This is the third third down of the game, and he goes to the sideline?’” McCourty said. “This is your best player. On third down, even if he’s not getting the ball, he dictates defense.

“Then I turn on the Chargers game, where he runs an over route on second down. On third down, he’s not out there. From playing against him, he’s always been out there. That hasn’t been a thing where, if he runs longer than 20 yards, he comes out.”

The Bills made McCourty scratch his head again with their first possession after halftime against the Patriots.

The must-win game wasn’t a rout. For more than half of it, New England led or was within one possession. When the third quarter began, Buffalo led by just six points. And there Diggs stood on the sideline for all eight plays, 75 yards and 4 minutes, 18 seconds it took to score a touchdown. Sherfield, with eight receptions all season, got Diggs’ snaps.

“That, to me, is very weird,” McCourty said. “If we turn on any film of Tyreek Hill, A.J. Brown, CeeDee Lamb, any of these guys who are tops in the league, I don’t think we’d find a drive where they don’t play a single snap and they’re healthy.”

Diggs through six games was on pace for 139 receptions, 1,757 yards and 14 touchdowns. His pace over the past 10 games withered to 87 catches, 809 yards and five touchdowns, with his catch percentage falling from 74.2 to 59.3 over that time.

He has played 46 percent, 60 percent and 65 percent of Buffalo’s offensive snaps the past three games. Gabe Davis and Khalil Shakir have played more. Sherfield has played more snaps than Diggs two of the past three weeks.

“For a guy that’s going to get double-teamed a good amount,” McCourty said, “or there’s going to be a safety over the top or they’re even going to disguise that he’s doubled, and you drop his (snap) percentage from 87, almost 90 to 60, basically, how does this help your offense?”

As detailed by The Athletic earlier this week, Diggs is running the shortest routes of his career, with 17 percent of his targets (three times more than last season) at or behind the line of scrimmage and nearly half of his targets traveling no more than 5 yards in the air.

Despite the substantial drop in playing time, Diggs still is averaging about the same number of targets as seasons past. That equation doesn’t work, McCourty noted, because that means Allen is forcing passes to Diggs at a higher rate when the 2020 All-Pro receiver is out there.

On Dec. 14, the last time Diggs spoke to reporters, he mentioned “quality of targets” among his reasons for decreased production.

Miami is an appropriate opponent for Diggs to rediscover his mojo. McCourty predicted a big game for him Sunday night.

Not only is the AFC East title at stake, but the Dolphins defense also has struggled to contain Allen since he turned pro. Diggs has flourished against them, too, catching six passes for 120 yards and three touchdowns in Week 4.

“He’s best when he has the ball and he’s talking trash,” McCourty said. “That was the edge he brought to Buffalo in the receiving game.

“We always knew we were going to have to go play this guy. We used to tell (Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson): ‘We know you can guard him. The issue with you sometimes is you don’t come locked in every play, and Diggs is going to play every play.’ He’s ready to get the ball and make a big play every single snap.

“I think now, with him not getting the ball, with him on the field less, it pulls away from what he’s really good at. That energy or anytime kind of play goes away because he’s in less and knows when he’s going to be targeted and when he isn’t. It’s a disservice to the offense.”