Film Breakdown: How the Absence of Stefon Diggs as a Deep Threat Will Affect Kirk Cousins

Photo credit: Brace Hemmelgarn (USA TODAY Sports)

Rattling off each and every valuable skill Stefon Diggs provided for the Minnesota Vikings offense over the past handful of years would be an exhausting exercise. All-Pro and Pro Bowl voting has never reflected it, but any spectator, fan of the team or otherwise, would be quick to deem Diggs a vital part of the Vikings’ offense in recent seasons. Adam Thielen and Diggs have been one of the best pairs in the league since they first got together.

Losing a player of Diggs’ caliber was never going to be easy on the Vikings. More specifically, it will be Diggs’ dominance as a deep threat that makes him a tricky task to replace properly. Deep threats are tough to find in general and Diggs was in his own tier of deep threat last season.

Per Football Outsiders, Diggs recorded 154 DYAR (defense-adjusted yards above replacement) on 15 go/fly balls last season. The next-best wide receiver in DYAR on those particular deep routes was Mike Evans at 111. Davante Adams followed at 77. Suffice to say, Diggs was miles better at threatening the deep ball from outside the hashes than any other receiver in the league.

Sometimes that value manifests itself as clearly as bailing out the offense from a 4th-and-four in their own territory. After cutting up the Bears defense with a nasty comeback route on the preceding 3rd-and-18, Diggs glides past Kyle Fuller on this rep to move the sticks. Diggs’ first step off the line was directly into Fuller’s frame, forcing the cornerback to extend his arm to begin trying to slow Diggs down. That arm extension is exactly what Diggs was waiting for.

Once he sees it, he swipes the arm outside while bullying his way past Fuller’s inside shoulder. After that, it was a simple “if he’s (the WR) even, he’s leavin’” look for Cousins. The pass drops gracefully into Diggs’ outstretched arms without either defender having a chance at it, instantly putting the Vikings in field goal range (at the least) at Chicago’s 28-yard line.

Diggs is not just a deep threat who needed to be sprinting in the open field, though. He is not the skyscraper that Mike Evans or Kenny Golladay are, but Diggs has a phenomenal sense for his surroundings and understands how to manipulate the slightest movements to create space for himself at the last second.

In this clip, for example, Diggs does not win the early portion of the route. Lions shutdown cornerback Darius Slay does a wonderful job of staying on top of Diggs both off the line of scrimmage and through Diggs’ attempt at a double-move.

To be clear, Diggs wins with this move more often than not, but sometimes the Pro Bowl cornerback reminds you of why they are respected in their field. Cousins lets a pass fly in Diggs’ direction anyway and places it over the top toward the sideline, which is the absolute best spot for this route when the receiver is not clearly open versus a cornerback playing inside leverage.

As the ball is soaring through the air, Diggs never really has separation. He is forced to settle into a jostling battle with Slay. Diggs does well to maintain contact with Slay until the very last moment before lightly shoving him off and stretching out to find the ball near the sideline. While subtle, Diggs’ ability to slow down the play, invite contact, then use that contact to slow the cornerback down and push them away from the sideline is exactly how the league’s best wide receivers “find” separation that is not really there.

And just for good measure, below is a similar clip of Diggs cooking Josh Norman last season.

A healthy chunk of Diggs’ value as a deep threat also lies in how his presence dictates what the defense feels comfortable doing in coverage. For instance, a deep threat of Diggs’ caliber may generally coax defenses into playing their safeties deeper than they would otherwise. Worthwhile deep threats such as Diggs change the gravity of the defensive structure and help open up opportunities for other receivers in the intermediate area of the field.

This clip is on a 3rd-and-2 with the Vikings backed up well into their own territory. While the other 10 defenders are jammed into or near the box, Detroit’s lone deep safety is 20 yards off the ball before the play even starts. As the ball is snapped, the deep safety trots back even further and slowly creeps towards the sideline. With the cornerback taking Diggs in man coverage and the safety shifting deeper and toward the sideline, tight end Kyle Rudolph is free to run an intermediate crossing route into the short side of the field without any chance of the free safety being able to pin down on this.

In a micro sense, the deep safety not being able to pin down on the crosser is often a byproduct of Cover 1 in general, but the macro point to be made is that the Lions felt they needed to call this coverage in this spot at least in part to contain Diggs down the sideline.

Diggs’ success was, of course, in part due to Cousins doing well to connect on deep passes. His ball placement in all of the Diggs targets above, as well as many other attempts last season, was superb. In a guest column on Football Outsiders, Jonathan Kinsley charted Cousins with being accurate on 29 of his 56 (51.8%) pass attempts beyond 20 yards, putting him above the league-average 47.7% accuracy rate on deep passes. Cousins’ 56 deep pass attempts were also about 10 more than the league-average over the course of the year, so it is not as though Cousins got lucky to connect a few times on a small sample. He was airing it out and making those attempts count.

This has long been the case with Cousins when he has had a deep threat available to him. For all his flaws, Cousins is more than capable of taking advantage of a stellar deep threat. It is easy to pick on Cousins for his aversion to the intermediate area of the field (more so early on in his career than now), but he has never been shy about letting it rip 20-plus yards down the field. Arguably Cousins’ best year, and certainly his best in DC, was 2016, DeSean Jackson’s best season with Cousins as the starter in Washington.

The following year, 2017, was a down year from Cousins in large part because Jackson left in free agency. Jackson took his talents south to Tampa Bay, leaving Cousins with Jamison Crowder, Josh Doctson and Ryan Grant, none of which came close to making up for the last value in deep threat ability. In turn, Cousins posted the lowest DYAR and ANY/A (adjusted net yards per attempt) marks in his five years as a starting quarterback.

Losing a deep threat such as Jackson (and now in Minnesota’s case, Diggs) allows defenses the freedom to play shallower, more aggressive coverages. Without the threat of the top being taken off, defenses are free to keep their safeties down a bit and prioritize suffocating the intermediate and short passing game. This would be a problem for any offense, but for Kubiak/Shanahan/Gruden/McVay-esque offenses whose passing games live and breathe with shot plays while sacrificing a bit of emphasis on the drop back passing game, not being able to rely on shot plays while defenses can swarm the intermediate area is a one-way ticket to drives stalling out.

Cousins himself also does not do well with having the intermediate area constricted on him. In the four years Next Gen Stats has provided data, Cousins has been towards the bottom in Aggressive Index (a measure of how often a quarterback is throwing to tight windows) … except for in 2017. That year without Jackson spiked Cousins’ Aggressive Index to 16.5%, at least 2.5% higher than any of his other three seasons. The shorter passing concepts and higher frequency of condensed coverages — not to mention Washington’s offensive line woes that year — ultimately led to a passing offense that was just a hair above average. It was far from a disastrous season, but it was still a couple steps below what the offense had been in Cousins’ first two years piloting the team.

And so, without Diggs, the Vikings are at risk of suffering a Cousins-related drop off the same way Washington did in 2017. Granted, Minnesota’s top-two receivers being Thielen and Justin Jefferson is a far better look than Washington rolling out Crowder and Doctson, but the possibility of regression remains.

As such, the Vikings will need one of two things to happen in order to stave off a post-Diggs deep ball dilemma: A new deep threat must emerge with great success or the standard drop back passing game in the 1- to 15-yard range must improve. With the roster’s current state, the former possibility is quite unlikely, so monitoring how the Vikings plan to expand and improve their intermediate drop back passing game will be key heading into this season.

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Photo credit: Brace Hemmelgarn (USA TODAY Sports)

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