With one of the worst offenses in the league, the Minnesota Vikings need to play lights out to make the playoffs. Stefon Diggs may be their only hope.
In recent years, the Minnesota Vikings passing game has been characterized by a relatively equal distribution of touches. Former offensive coordinator Norv Turner heavily emphasized spreading the ball around the field, urging his quarterbacks to hit the open man rather than key in on a specific receiver.
To get a picture of just how religiously the Vikings stuck to that blueprint, one need only look to last year’s statistics. An astounding 13 different players caught at least one pass last year, with only Stefon Diggs catching more than 50. Largely as a result of this thinly spread passing game, the Vikings went their sixth straight year without a 1,000 yard receiver.
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While Turner’s logic of hitting the open man regardless of who they were seemed to make sense, it ignored a basic and fundamental principle of football: let your playmakers make plays.
Vikings fans were consistently frustrated last year as the Vikings continued to spread the ball around and neglect playmakers as the offense struggled. Fortunately, with Pat Shurmur taking over the reigns following Turners’ shocking resignation, a greater emphasis seems to be being placed on getting the ball to playmakers.
Sep 18, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs (14) acknowledges the fans against the Green Bay Packers at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Vikings defeated the Packers 17-14. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
Given the Vikings’ current offensive personnel, that means throwing the ball to Stefon Diggs. And then throwing it to him again. And again, and again.
Shurmur and the struggling Vikings have been feeding the ball to Diggs at a historic rate. With 13 catches for 164 yards against the Redskins last week to follow-up a 13 reception, 80 yard game against the Lions the week before, Diggs became the only receiver in NFL history to catch 13 passes in back to back weeks.
On a team that ranks 26th in points and dead last in total yards, Stefon Diggs stands out as a shining beacon of hope. Ranking 2nd in the league with 7.6 receptions per game and 6th in the league with 88.8 yards per game, Diggs has emerged as a bona fide star.
The reliance on Diggs in recent weeks has been largely trial-and-error for Shurmur so far, however. By trying to force feed Diggs as many touches as possible when he took over, Shurmur actually ended up de-emphasizing some of the strongest points of his game. This tweet from NFL.com’s Matt Harmon perfectly exemplifies this:
While Diggs got the ball at an incredible rate against the Lions, he was given fewer downfield looks than ever before. With only had one catch more than 10 yards downfield, Diggs was largely relegated to the role of chain-mover. For Diggs to make the explosive impact he’s capable of making, the Vikings will need to find a way to reincorporate deep targets into the gameplan.
To a degree, the Vikings succeeded in doing that against the Redskins last week.
While the emphasis was still overwhelmingly placed on the short passing game, Diggs was given several opportunities to make plays deep down the sidelines. Overall, the game plan against the Redskins in Week 10 was promising, as the Vikings continued to feed Diggs while giving him a more diverse slate of routes to run. Given the state of the Vikings offensive line, it will be difficult to provide quarterback Sam Bradford the time to consistently hit those deep passes, but the team will have to try in order to effectively center the offense around Diggs.
The increased usage of Diggs under Shurmur hasn’t translated into any wins yet, but that doesn’t mean the Vikings should give up on him. Quite simply, no other offensive player has displayed the ability to take over games that Diggs has this year.
Whatever the Minnesota Vikings do, it has become abundantly clear: Stefon Diggs is the star of this offense, and the success of the team lies largely in his hands. If Diggs can continue to provide a spark of explosion on offense, there is still hope that the unit can increase its production just enough to take advantage of the stifling defense. Diggs’ performance the next few weeks may very well decide the fate of the Vikings season.