'Got to get him going:' Bills plot ways to reintroduce Stefon Diggs to offense. But how?


Staff member

Aware of the urgency to get his best receiver an early catch downfield, Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen received the snap, faked the hand-off to running back James Cook, completed his drop-back and momentarily looked left to receiver Gabe Davis before his vision shifted to Stefon Diggs.

Diggs ran a 16-yard route and stuck his foot into the turf to turn inside. Allen-to-Diggs for a long gain. What a way to start a critical game.

But, mostly like the previous nine games, it didn’t work out. Under pressure, Allen was sacked in 3.16 seconds.

“The first play of the game, we were up in the booth and were like, ‘Oh, man, they said they were going to get (Diggs) involved in the first couple of plays,’ ” "NFL on CBS" analyst Trent Green said in a phone interview. “And then all of a sudden, it disappeared.”

Disappeared again.

Diggs finished with four catches for 26 yards in the Buffalo Bills’ harder-than-it-had-to-be 27-21 win over the New England Patriots. A fourth consecutive win … and the third time in four games Diggs had been held under 30 yards receiving. This from a player whose career average is 73.4.

“What’s happening with him?” an AFC offensive assistant asked.

It is the Bills’ top question … and most difficult to answer. How did Diggs go from five 100-yard games in the first six weeks to none since? How is he in the midst of one touchdown in seven games? How does he have only three catches of at least 16 yards in the last six games?

Well, it’s complicated. Coverage. Protection. Winning on routes. All have played a role in Diggs majoring in catching short passes and sinking from tied for first in catches through 10 games to 10th (100) and from fifth in yards (868) to 17th (1,096).

Sunday night at Miami is the ideal time to reintroduce Diggs. Beat the Miami Dolphins and the Bills are AFC East champions for the fourth consecutive year and the conference’s No. 2 playoff seed.

“We’ve got to get him going,” Bills interim offensive coordinator Joe Brady said. “I’ve got to get him going.”

Significant downturn​

Through six games, Diggs was averaging 103.3 yards per game, putting him on pace for 1,757 yards, a total only seven receivers in NFL history have eclipsed in a single season. It was likely unsustainable, a theory proven correct in the weeks that followed. But this much of a drop-off in production? Shocking.

This Bills’ offensive season can be split into two parts: Offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey (Games 1-10) and Brady (Games 11-16).

In Dorsey’s 10 games (5-5 record), Diggs averaged 10.2 targets, 7.3 catches and 86.8 yards. He had seven touchdowns, 19 explosive catches (gain of at least 16 yards), five 100-yard games and six games of at least seven catches.

In Brady’s six games (5-1 record), Diggs has averaged 8.3 targets, 4.5 catches and 38.0 yards. He has one touchdown, three explosive catches and no 100-yard or seven-catch games.

The point isn’t to blame Brady. Under his watch, the Bills are winning and running it more (five games of 30 or more carries, compared to two games under Dorsey).

Diggs’ season-long usage – 28.2% of the Bills’ completions – is in the same ballpark as his first three seasons with the club – 30.9% in 2020, 24.8% in ’21 and 29.9% last year. By comparison this season, the league’s top three pass-catchers have accounted for 30.9% (Dallas’ CeeDee Lamb), 29.8% (Miami’s Tyreek Hill) and 29.1% (Detroit’s Amon-Ra St. Brown) of their team’s catches.

Diggs was plugging along in Weeks 7-9, posting games of 58, 70 and 86 yards on a combined 21 catches (two touchdowns). But then, the bottom fell out. Only one game of more than five catches and 48 yards.

Most concerning and noticeable is how Diggs’ yards-per-catch has dropped from 13.2 last year to 11.0 this year.

“That’s a lot, but not a record by any means,” said Aaron Schatz, chief analytics officer for FTN Network.
Fifty-three of Diggs’ catches have been caught at/behind the line of scrimmage or 1-5 yards downfield, compared with only 11 catches of 16 or more yards downfield.

Schatz looked at all receivers since 2000 who averaged 12-14 yards per catch (minimum 50 receptions) in two consecutive years.

“Only 10% dropped by at least 2.0 yards per catch in the second year, like Diggs has,” he said. “But a few of them fell by more than 3.0 yards per catch – James Jones in 2013-14 fell by 4.7 yards per catch (13.8 for Green Bay to 9.1 for Oakland). Diggs’ drop-off is bad, but not the worst.”

Diggs crossed the 1,000-yard mark in the Week 15 win over Dallas and made his 100th catch last week, becoming only the third player in league history with at least 100 receptions in four or more consecutive years.

But barring a monster game against Miami, his season total will be far off from last year’s 1,429 yards. Are his years of 1,400-1,500 yards over?

“Probably, but, after all, he had only two of those seasons,” said Schatz, referring to 2020 (1,535) and last year. “There has never been a receiver who went from over 1,400 yards to under 1,200 yards and then back to over 1,400 yards at age 30 or older.”

The closest, Schatz said, was Indianapolis’ Reggie Wayne in 2010-12 (1,355 to 960 and back to 1,355 in his age-34 season). Diggs turned 30 on Nov. 29.

Suggestions for Bills​

The Buffalo News asked two NFL offensive assistants on Tuesday to put their coordinator hat on and provide suggestions.

Coach No. 1: “Jet sweep to get him a guaranteed touch because he’s dynamic with the football. … Quick game like bubbles/screens, hitch and quick out routes. … With Josh, you can go no-huddle so he can see the coverage plan for Diggs with double team or ‘cloud’ coverage with a safety. It doesn’t guarantee he will get the ball with up-tempo/no-wait plan, but you can see what the defense is doing. … You can motion him into the backfield to get him some ‘choice’ routes and swing passes, so defenses can’t double him. … Also use formation adjustments like putting Diggs as the No. 3 – most inside – receiver of a ‘trips’ look to see if you can get him matched up against a linebacker or safety. … Use stacks and bunches to get him out of the ‘cloud’ plan or double-team plan from defenses.”

In a common “cloud” coverage, one cornerback and two safeties handle the deep part of the field, and a second cornerback plays the flat (short-to-medium perimeter of the field). This provides strong downfield coverage and can be supplemented by dropping linebackers into zone coverage, clogging the middle of the field.

To Coach No. 1’s points …
• The Bills have emphasized quick passes – 19 of his catches have been passes at or behind the line of scrimmage, a way for Allen to combat the blitz, take advantage of off coverage against Diggs and get blockers in front of him for yards-after-the-catch.

• The Bills adjusted between the Chargers and Patriots games. Against the Chargers, Diggs lined up in a “trips” (three receivers/tight ends on one side of the formation) just once. Against the Patriots, Brady moved Diggs around: Twice in the backfield (one carry), six in a bunch and five in “trips,” including two as the inside receiver.

• The Bills using a muddle-huddle (not a hurry-up, but it forces the defense to keep the same personnel on the field) has not been a regular part of their plan.
On to Coach No. 2 …

“The first thought is never get past the second drive without giving Diggs a touch,” he said. “(Former Green Bay/Seattle coach) Mike Holmgren taught me that. When he had Sterling Sharpe in Green Bay, he had a section on his call sheet with quick game and screens that could always go to Sharpe, him saying, ‘OK, by second down on the second drive, I’m getting him a touch.’”

In Brady’s games as the play-caller, Diggs has been targeted six times (three catches for 24 yards) on the Bills’ opening drive and five times (two catches for six yards) on the second drive. This doesn’t include plays that prioritized Diggs, but Allen was forced to go elsewhere, as he did on the first snap last week. Two of the completions were quick-game throws along the line of scrimmage (each gained three yards).

Coach No. 2 reviewed plays from the Patriots-Bills game and sent along a video clip.

On third-and-5 from the Bills’ 45 in the fourth quarter, Diggs was the most inside of “trips” to Allen’s left. This is an example of how everything needs to work at once. Tight end Dalton Kincaid (middle receiver) hesitates at the snap so receiver Khalil Shakir (outside receiver) can dart inside to set up a pick. Diggs, meanwhile, has 1-on-1 coverage, but can’t shake free. Allen has to scramble when the protection breaks down.

“It was Diggs’ route to win man-to-man, and he should be the big alert (target) vs. pressure,” the coach said. “But I think Allen gets off him when Diggs got hung up and then puts his eyes down and doesn’t see Kincaid wide open.”

Overall, Coach No. 2 said, New England was “spinning” a safety to help on Diggs on third down, and the Bills can help Diggs by using Kincaid as a pick.
The Dolphins will be without cornerback Xavien Howard (foot injury) so no question, Brady and company spent Monday-Tuesday trying to solve the riddle of how to get Diggs more involved.

“I have to continue working through just finding ways to get him (the ball), regardless of (the circumstances),” Brady said. “Full confidence in Stef and full confidence in Josh and us getting that right.”

Easy to force throws​

The Kansas City Chiefs were playing out the string when they closed the 2004 season at San Diego. The only sub-plot – pretty much the main plot, actually – was Tony Gonzalez’s pursuit of the single-season record for most catches by a tight end. He needed nine to pass New England’s Ben Coates (96 in 1994). Gonzalez had three catches at halftime.

Green, then the Chiefs’ quarterback, completed 11 of his 25 second-half passes to Gonzalez, who finished with 14 catches on 21 targets. The Chiefs lost, but he had his record (106).

“We had so many plays designed for him,” Green said. “A lot of them were – and it wasn’t in-style back then – were the quick outside screens and it was, ‘Turn, one step, throw it,’ just to get Tony some receptions.”

Green relayed this when asked if Allen needs for force some throws to get Diggs untracked. Throw it into coverage and trust Diggs to turn a 50-50 ball into a 70-30 ball.
The 2004 Chiefs could afford to force things to Gonzalez. Nothing team-wise was on the line.

“There are ways to do it and you can find ways, but they’re trying to win the game,” Green said. “What was brought up in our (production meeting) conversations with Josh and the team (last week) was the No. 1 priority was to win. If winning the game means going somewhere else and taking what the defense gives you, you have to do what’s best.”

Allen said after Wednesday’s walk-through it would be “extremely easy,” to force throws to Diggs.

“That’s where the balance comes in of needing to get him involved but also trying to play the quarterback position the right way and finding the open guys in the progression,” Allen said.

During the current winning streak, the open guys have been Cook (83 yards at Kansas City), Davis (130 at the Chargers) and Kincaid (87 against New England).
“Stef’s effect on the field goes beyond just the stats,” tight end Dawson Knox said. “There are many times when he will be doubled in coverage and that opens it up for somebody else or taking a safety away opens up the run game. There is so much more to his game than the amount of catches he has. He’s just as important a weapon for us as ever.”

Diggs is 92 yards from becoming the 56th player in league history to reach 10,000 career receiving yards. A big game Sunday night would equal parts give the Bills the second seed and serve as the catalyst for a No. 14-led playoff run.

“No mistake about it, we have to get him the ball,” Allen said. “We’re at our best when he’s playing at his best, so it’s something we’re looking forward to doing.”

Tale of two seasons​

A look at how Bills receiver Stefon Diggs’ statistics from Games 1-10 compare with Games 11-16:
  • Category – First 10 – Last 6 Total (NFL rank)
  • Targets 102 50 152 (8th)
  • Catches 73 27 100 (10th)
  • Yards 868 228 1,096 (17th)
  • Avg. per catch 11.9 8.4 11.0 (T-39th)&
  • Avg. yards per game 86.8 38.0 68.5 (20th)
  • Touchdowns 7 1 8 (T-8th)
  • Explosive catches 19 3 22#
  • 100-yard games 5 0 5 (T-7th)
  • Seven-catch games 6 0 6
& Among players with at least 50 catches.
# Explosive catch is gain of at least 16 yards.

Notes: After 10 games, Diggs ranked tied for first in catches, fifth in yards and tied for second in touchdown catches. The Bills changed offensive coordinators from Ken Dorsey to Joe Brady after Game 10.

Diggs’ usage​

A look at what percentage of the Bills’ completions have gone to receiver Stefon Diggs since 2020:
  • Season – Diggs’ rec. Bills’ comp. Pct.
  • 2020 127 410 30.9
  • 2021 103 415 24.8
  • 2022 108 361 29.9
  • 2023 100 355 28.2
  • Total 438 1,541 28.4
Note: By comparison this season, Dallas’ CeeDee Lamb is 30.9% (122 of 394), Miami’s Tyreek Hill 29.8% (112 of 376) and Detroit’s Amon-Ra St. Brown 29.1% (112 of 385).

Where Diggs is catching passes​

As charted by The Buffalo News, the “air” yards of each catch by Bills receiver Stefon Diggs this season:

“Air” yards – No. TD Comment
  • At/behind line 19 0 At least one catch at/behind line in last six games.
  • 1-5 yards 34 1 5-yard TD at Jets, 10 catches in last six games.
  • 6-10 yards 18 1 11-yard TD vs. Miami, 17 yards on two catches last week.
  • 11-15 yards 18 3 Touchdowns of 55 and 13 yards vs. Miami, 13 yards at Philadelphia.
  • 16-20 yards 7 2 TDs of 25 yards at New England, 17 at Cincinnati.
  • 21-25 yards 2 0 Catches of 30 yards at Washington, 28 vs. Giants.
  • 26-plus yards 2 1 30-yard TD at Washington, 48-yard catch vs. Jaguars.
  • Total 100 8