National Football League
Where has star receiver Stefon Diggs gone from Bills offense?
National Football League

Where has star receiver Stefon Diggs gone from Bills offense?

Published Jan. 2, 2024 11:43 a.m. ET

If the Buffalo Bills are trying to prove they don't need Stefon Diggs, they're doing a good job. Since the promotion of interim offensive coordinator Joe Brady, the Bills have steadily cut their three-time Pro Bowl receiver out of the game plan and targeted him at a much lower clip.

Here's the kicker: They're winning with this strategy.

Brady has the offense playing at a higher level, coach Sean McDermott has the defense playing better and the Bills are likely going to make the playoffs. 

Earlier this season, there were moments when things got a bit bleak. At 5-5, the Bills were fresh off losses to the Bengals and Broncos (back when they were the league's whipping boy) and Buffalo was headed into the teeth of a brutal schedule to finish the year: at Eagles, at Chiefs, vs. Cowboys, at Dolphins). 


There seemed like no shot the Bills would scrape together a winning streak. 

But that's what they've done. After winning five of their past six games, the Bills now have a 95% chance of making the postseason, per the New York Times simulator.

And somehow, Diggs, who is healthy (according to the injury report), has not been a central part of it. At least, his production hasn't been. His coaches would contend his work "hasn't necessarily showed up in the stat book."

"Look, Stef's been unbelievable. That C on his chest matters to him," Brady said last week. "Stef Diggs does so much even when he doesn't have the ball. Obviously, you want to get him as much touches and you want to get him every catch that you can. But there's so many things that he's opening up windows for Khalil Shakir, James Cook. [Diggs] is doing so much without the football. 

"He hasn't once blinked. He's been great. All he cares about is winning football games, and I know he helps us win football games."

That is, more or less, what his trainer, Myron Flowers, told FOX Sports at the outset of this season when Diggs reported for minicamp but did not get on the practice field after a meeting with McDermott seemed to go off the rails. Diggs' discontent rolled over from last season when the Bills suffered an early playoff elimination. Yes, he was upset he didn't get a target in the red zone when he felt he was open for a game-winning touchdown. But more than that, the star receiver felt like nothing was changing. 

Well, things have changed. The Bills are winning — but they're doing it by minimizing his role.

"It's a unique situation because the team has had success with Diggs getting the ball and without," Flowers told FOX Sports by text Monday. "It's about winning at this point, and he still has all the confidence in the world in his ability when his number is called."

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For weeks now, the Bills coaches have emphasized that they'd like to get his number called more often. But for weeks, we have not seen that happen. Diggs jumped out to an incredible start to the season from Weeks 1 through 6, when he played 82.4% of the offensive snaps and averaged 11 targets with 8.2 catches for 103.3 yards and .8 touchdowns. It looked like it might just be a record year for the wideout. 

Then his production slowed from Week 7 to Week 10. And it steadily declined starting Week 11, when Brady took over for Dorsey. Here's a clear look at the splits.

Weeks 1-10:

  • Snap %: 87.4
  • Targets/game: 10.2
  • Receptions/game: 7.3
  • Rec Yards/game: 86.8
  • TD/game: 0.7

Weeks 11-17:

  • Snap %: 63.3
  • Targets/game: 8.3
  • Receptions/game: 4.5
  • Rec Yards/game: 38
  • TD/game: 0.2

Diggs spoke after Buffalo’s 32-6 win over the Jets in Week 11, when he had just four catches for 27 yards. It was Brady’s first game as OC and the beginning of Diggs’ diminished role. He indicated that kind of week was just fine — that it was the losing (against Denver and Cincinnati) that bugged him.

"These past couple weeks, I’m not going to say I wasn’t having fun, but I wasn’t having the most fun," Diggs said on Nov. 22. "This past game, you could see it. The energy was different."

During Buffalo's 31-10 win over the Cowboys in Week 14, Diggs' usage was at its lowest point with 31 snaps (46%) — behind Gabe Davis, Shakir and Trent Sherfield. That's right: Diggs was WR4. Diggs also trailed Dalton Kincaid (33) and Dawson Knox (42). The Bills heavily featured the ground game, which meant that Diggs — not the most gifted or willing blocker — was not on the field.

Buffalo again phased Diggs out of the lineup on Sunday against the Patriots in a run-heavy game. The receiver played 65% of the snaps, his third-lowest margin.

Is that a concern?

"It is," McDermott said after the team's 27-21 win over New England. "He's our No. 1 receiver. And whether teams are trying to take him away or [the offense is] spreading the ball around, there's things we can do better offensively. Any time a quarterback is going through his progression, that's the right way to go through it, right? And the ball finds the open players. 

"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 in the last few games. So we've got, obviously, some work to do."

It's a tricky game to play. 

The Bills want Diggs to get the ball — and to stay content in his role. But their commitment to the run has been one of the grounding qualities for this team as it piles up wins.

That might just be the biggest philosophical shift under Brady. He is more committed to the run than former OC Ken Dorsey was. In a game like the Bills' win over the Cowboys, Buffalo resisted the urge to turn to play-action. The Bills simply hammered the football, often running the same play again and again because Dallas couldn't defend it. 

It was a similar story against New England. The Bills didn't run the ball efficiently, but their defense gave the offense such good field position (from four takeaways) that they were able to get by with a massive dose of the run game, even on 3.4 yards per carry. 

The alternative was throwing the ball, where Josh Allen completed just 50% of his passes and threw an interception. Against New England, Diggs had seven targets and four catches for 26 yards. The Bills even called his number on a run play — probably in hopes of getting him a touchdown. (He hasn't scored since Week 12.) In the red zone, Diggs ran the ball from eight yards out but only picked up three yards. 

That speaks to a greater issue: On the season, Diggs' catch percentage (targets/receptions) is the third-lowest of his career. Allen and Diggs aren't connecting as often as they have in year's past. And surely, that's because most defenses had a simple game plan against Buffalo.

"Double 14," Allen said earlier this year.

On Dec. 14, Diggs again addressed his smaller role, including teams doubling him early and often.

"It’s rough," he said of all the defensive attention. "I’ve been trying. I promise you I’ve been trying. It’s not because of me, but defenses are doing a good job. We’ve just got to continue to make plays and spread the ball. We’ve been winning so far. In a perfect world, I want to have the ball. I want success and they be winning games. … Hopefully we get some things rolling."

He added: "It’s frustrating. I’ve got to do a lot of this right to get open and then a lot of things have to go right to get me the ball."

The Bills' offensive game plan looked mighty simple under Dorsey. Brady has made a point of mixing things up. Allen is making full use of his cast of characters, from Cook to Davis to Kincaid to Shakir to Knox. What is different this year than last year is that when Diggs fades, someone always steps up — even if it's never the same player. Last year, they couldn't get the rotation right, with the offense misfiring and no one elevating to help Allen when Diggs couldn't produce.

But the best offenses make use of their best playmakers. Buffalo isn't doing that right now with a dormant Diggs.

Does Brady need to get Diggs the ball more for this offense to reach its full potential?

"Yes. Any given time you get the ball to Stef Diggs, good things happen," the interim OC said.

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The Bills have a good problem: They don't need their star receiver to win. As long as he's OK with that, they can keep this up. Of course, if Diggs doesn't get production and the Bills start to lose? Well, then they're out of the playoffs and it's hard to say how Diggs will take that — both the losing and the lack of targets.

Right now, it's the offense's biggest headache. The Bills need Diggs — but maybe less than they once thought.

Prior to joining FOX Sports as the AFC East reporter, Henry McKenna spent seven years covering the Patriots for USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Boston Globe Media. Follow him on Twitter at @henrycmckenna.


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