What’s behind Stefon Diggs’ dwindling snaps? Bills still searching for answers


Staff member

The Buffalo Bills repeatedly have said Stefon Diggs isn’t hurt, although many fans insist he must be.

The Bills say he isn’t catching as many passes lately because of the way defenses double-team him and how Josh Allen’s read progressions go sometimes, although Diggs has been doubled frequently throughout the 72 games in which he has thrived with Allen.

The Bills say Diggs’ drastically reduced snap counts are due to situational football, although it doesn’t explain why Khalil Shakir and Gabriel Davis are on the field in every situation.

Those explanations imply Buffalo simply isn’t relying more on its second-highest-paid player just because.

Whatever the reason, the Bills apparently have stopped considering Diggs the best receiver to help on any given down, distance or circumstance. Since an explosive start, his numbers have plummeted. Diggs is playing less, running shorter routes and not being deployed like an All-Pro talent anymore.

“I don’t think it’s any one thing,” Bills offensive coordinator Joe Brady said Monday. “Look, I think it’s a combination of — we have been trying to run the ball a little more. I think other guys continuously step up, and naturally, a focus is always going to be on Stefon Diggs, right? When you play teams, that’s where the focus is going to be, and I have to continue working through just finding ways to get him (the ball) regardless of that.

“It’s nothing Stef isn’t doing.”

One thing Stef isn’t doing as much anymore is playing.

A football expert might believe a player who requires multiple defenders to stop him would be too valuable to remove from the field so others can capitalize. Diggs, however, has played less than 60 percent of Buffalo’s offensive snaps in the past three weeks.

Yet even before his playing time began to shrink, Diggs’ production plunged. Through six games, he was on pace for 139 receptions, 1,757 yards and 14 touchdowns with a 74.2 catch percentage. His season pace over the other 10 games collapsed to 87 catches, 809 yards and five TDs with a 59.3 catch percentage.

“The ball finds the open players,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said, referring to a quarterback progressing through his targets each play. “So Stef continues to work. He’s going to be fine, but we have things we need to work on overall as a team, and that’s one of them because you can’t let your No. 1 receiver go like he has, and in particular the last few games. We’ve got, obviously, some work to do.”

Perhaps playing the Miami Dolphins for the AFC East championship can spark a revival Sunday. In eight career games against the Dolphins, Diggs has gone 7-1 with 46 catches, 632 yards and seven touchdowns. He snagged six passes for 120 yards and three touchdowns in the Week 4 blowout.

“He’s a factor,” McDermott said. “He’s a big factor for us. He brings so much energy and vibe to our team, to our offense — let’s just start there — and collectively to our team. So he’s a valued member of our team, and in particular our offense.

“We’re going to need him down the stretch here.”

Diggs is not only seeing less action, but the passes to him have also gotten shorter.

Almost half his targets have traveled no farther than 5 yards in the air, with the average distance decreasing by the week amid bubble screens and whatever else Brady thinks might get Diggs going.

Diggs still is averaging 9.5 targets, about the same clip as the previous two seasons (including playoffs) and down from 10.4 in his first Bills campaign.

But he never has hovered so close to the line of scrimmage. Pro Football Reference charts Diggs’ average target depth at 9.9 yards, the lowest of his Bills tenure and down 1.3 yards from last year. In his final season with the Minnesota Vikings, he averaged 14.9 yards.

Of his 152 targets this year, TruMedia analytics show 17.1 percent thrown to him behind or to the scrimmage line and 28.3 percent thrown between 1 and 5 yards beyond. Bundled together, that’s a career-high 45.4 percent of Diggs’ targets traveling no deeper than half a first down.

Diggs last year averaged 4.9 routes behind the line of scrimmage. He ran 11 such routes each in back-to-back games with the Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs. Though he also ran a season-high 15 routes deeper than 10 yards in Arrowhead Stadium, over the four games since he has averaged a modest seven. Prior to running just four routes longer than 10 yards against the Dallas Cowboys three weeks ago, his season low was seven while dominating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 8.

Through his first three Buffalo seasons, passes at or behind the line accounted for only 9.6 percent, 8.6 percent and 8.7 percent of his targets. Throws between 1 and 5 air yards accounted for 26.9 percent, 23.0 percent and 31.2 percent.

In Diggs’ final Minnesota season, those numbers were 4.9 percent and 24.5 percent.

In trying to explain his diminished role, Diggs said at his weekly news conference on Dec. 14 that he has been effectively double-teamed. Chiefs safety Justin Reid replied to a Pro Football Talk post about Diggs’ comments:

Diggs hasn’t spoken to reporters since.

“Stef hasn’t been as involved maybe as much as we would’ve liked the last couple of games,” McDermott said. “But we’ve got to continue — just like all three phases of our team, in this case our offense — to develop, continue to improve and find production through the progression.”

In eight career games against the Miami Dolphins, Stefon Diggs has gone 7-1 with 46 catches, 632 yards and seven touchdowns. (Mark Konezny / USA Today)

Aside from a veteran rest day last week, Diggs has appeared once on an injury report, and that was a month and a half ago. A back issue limited him in Friday and Saturday practices before the Week 10 loss to the Denver Broncos, but he played 98 percent of the offensive snaps. He played 80 percent a week later against the New York Jets and followed up with 92 percent versus the Eagles.

Diggs got more than or as many snaps as Davis six times through the first 10 weeks. Davis has taken more than the three-time Pro Bowler six straight games.

Shakir has out-snapped Diggs on offense 120-109 in the past three games combined. Shakir also plays special teams, showing the Bills have no compunction leaning on the second-year pro down the homestretch.

Over those three crucial games in which Shakir pulled ahead in playing time, Diggs took 58.9 percent of Buffalo’s snaps. And each game was significant in mustering a postseason push, evidenced by the fact four straight victories still haven’t clinched Buffalo a spot in the tournament.

Against the Cowboys, Diggs played 46 percent of the snaps. That number sounds sensible when considering the Bills’ dominant ground attack that night. Running back James Cook had just three fewer touches than Diggs had snaps.

But then Diggs played merely 60 percent against the Los Angeles Chargers, who were up two scores well into the second quarter, trailed by 1 point midway through the third and retook the lead with 5:26 left in the fourth. Even depth receiver Trent Sherfield, with eight receptions all year, out-snapped Diggs 72-64 versus the Cowboys and Chargers.

Diggs played 65 percent Sunday against the New England Patriots, who led or trailed by less than a possession for more than half the game.

Brady tried to get Diggs a rushing touchdown Sunday. On second-and-4 from the Patriots’ 8-yard line, Diggs lined up next to Allen in shotgun formation, took the inside handoff and ran for 5 yards. It was Diggs’ fourth carry since joining the Bills.

Buffalo has been winning without those bodacious Diggs displays fans had gotten used to for 3 1/2 years, but it seems implausible to imagine a deep playoff run, let alone a Lombardi Trophy, without becoming a game-breaker again.

“At the end of the day, Stef wants to win football games,” Brady said. “Talking to him after (games), he’s good to go.

“Obviously, we’re going to need him to get to where we want to get to. We’re going to need him to be productive, and I’m going to have to get him going to be productive. But I have full confidence in him, full confidence in Josh and us getting that right.”