EAGAN — Stefon Diggs has been one of the NFL’s best deep-threat receivers this season.
He has the fifth most targets on throws traveling 20 yards or more, the third most receptions and the second most yards. But over the past four games, opponents have kept him from big gains in three of them — and Denver slowed the Vikings’ star receiver for the first half in which Minnesota’s offense was shut out.
Overall the plan to make him a DeSean Jackson-like receiver has been a success with Diggs averaging 18.1 yards per reception, third best in the NFL. And when Kirk Cousins targets him, the Vikings’ QB has a 112.0 rating.
But with Adam Thielen likely to miss another game this Sunday with a hamstring injury (he’s listed as doubtful and did not practice on Friday) opponents may be findings ways to mitigate the Vikings’ deep targets to Diggs.
Gary Kubiak and Kevin Stefanski have used Diggs almost exclusively as an outside receiver. Per Pro Football Focus he has only taken 97 snaps of 627 out of the slot. That has primarily been Thielen’s role since 2017. Before that Diggs was used regularly as a slot receiver, running quicker routes underneath and over the middle, averaging 10.8 yards per catch in ’16.
If opposing defenses are going to have over-the-top coverage on Diggs nearly every play, the Vikings may need to throw back to Diggs’ early years. On Monday night the Seattle Seahawks had safeties over the top of Diggs on a regular basis when he ran deep routes.
He was one-on-one on the final play but the All-22 film below shows (final clip) that Diggs was asked to run a go route down the sideline on fourth-and-3 rather than being a quick-throw option.
Getting Diggs looks on shorter passes was effective at times against Seattle. Cousins hit him for a 10-yard reception at the end of the first half that set up a 47-yard field goal by Dan Bailey.
The Vikings have received great contributions from other players since Thielen went down in Week 7 with tight ends Kyle Rudolph and Irv Smith each playing big roles in the offense and receiver Bisi Johnson stepping in admirably. But if the Vikings’ game-changer isn’t getting the ball, the passing game simply can’t be as effective. Since Diggs came into the league QBs throwing his way have a 108.3 rating.
When he was a slot receiver, Diggs’ yards per catch may have been well below his mark this year but his efficiency was high. Sam Bradford completed 77.1% of his throws to Diggs in 2016 and averaged 8.3 yards per attempt.
The last time the Vikings played the Lions Diggs went off, catching seven passes on eight targets for 142 yards. Considering Detroit has one of the worst defenses in the NFL, we might see that again on Sunday. Or we might see a change in strategy from Detroit similar to that of recent opponents. Aside from the Denver game in which he caught two second-half bombs, Diggs has one catch on six targets for 27 yards on deep throws vs. Kansas City, Dallas and Seattle.