The Buffalo Bills’ offense was one weapon shy of a load in 2019.
No longer. The addition of star wideout Stefon Diggs should make the Bills a lot harder to defend.
The key to offensive game planning is coming up with answers to what the defense is taking away. Now, Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll has – or should have – enough answers.
The other critical element to Diggs’ addition is the benefit he should bring to quarterback Josh Allen. Diggs is widely viewed as one of the top route-runners in the NFL – up there with or close behind Atlanta’s Julio Jones, the Chargers’ Keenan Allen and Cleveland’s Odell Beckham Jr. Now the Bills’ young QB has three wideouts who get fantastic separation.
Let’s first look at the impact of Diggs on the Bills’ offense as a whole.
If you were a defensive coordinator facing the Bills last season, what would you have said? Let’s put a safety over the top of John Brown so we don’t give up the explosive play. Let’s gang up to stop the run. Then let’s ask Allen: Where are you going with the ball? Cole Beasley is a good slot receiver, but is he going to kill us? No. Let’s make Isaiah McKenzie, Dawson Knox, Robert Foster, Zay Jones and whoever else they want to roll out there beat us.
I’m not suggesting this perspective worked every week. The Bills went 10-6. The offense squeezed production out of the talent.
But it all goes back to the Bill Belichick principle of defense: Make them play left-handed. Take away the biggest weapon and make the other guys beat us.
Now with Diggs in place, there is more fear in the defensive coordinator’s heart. It’s much more difficult to make the Bills play left-handed.
You have Brown, with 4.34 speed in the 40 on one side of the field. You have Diggs, with 4.46 speed on the other. And Diggs plays as fast as that 4.46 suggests, if not faster. He averaged 17.3 yards per catch last season, fourth-best in the NFL among starting wideouts.
Watch some of his highlights. He scored a 54-yard TD against Denver last year on a deep post when the safety hesitated on his assignment. See ya. He had a 66-yarder against Detroit on a play-action deep over, a play the Bills like a lot. He burned the Eagles’ Cover 4 defense for a 62-yard gain with pure speed. And so on.
Defenses aren’t going to want to put a safety over the top of both Brown and Diggs all the time. When they do, that’s an invitation to run the ball. The deep respect Diggs and Brown draw should help Devin Singletary run. It should create more space underneath for Beasley and Knox.
The Vikings saw opponents try to play safeties deep over both Diggs and Adam Thielen at times the past two years. But that made it harder to stop running back Dalvin Cook. And it opened other opportunities. The Vikings ran a lot of good 3-by-1 formations, with Diggs and Thielen on the same side of the field. Daboll surely will do the same.
Now if you really want to dream big, imagine if Knox takes a step forward and becomes a matchup nightmare as the lone wideout on the other side of the 3-by-1 set?
It’s clear Daboll likes all the things that the three-receiver set – 11 personnel – brings. Diggs can run a lot of that jet-sweep action that McKenzie ran – only he’ll be a far greater threat doing it.
The Bills’ offense got on its best roll of the season when Daboll went all-in on three wides and went up-tempo after the ugly loss in Cleveland. Over the next four games – Miami, Denver, Dallas and Baltimore – the Bills ran 11 personnel 88% of the plays and ran no-huddle 37% of the time.
The Bills had trouble last year against teams that were great at press coverage. Diggs is good at using his quick feet to get free releases off the line of scrimmage. The Bills just got better vs. the press-man that New England likes to run.
Diggs makes Daboll’s 11 personnel package legit.
The Bills also were bad at receiver screens last year. The Vikings didn’t do it a ton. But Diggs has some of those highlights, too. An easy, 18-yarder against the Eagles’ off coverage, a 19-yarder from an empty formation against the Saints in 2018, a 34-yarder vs. the Rams in 2018. The guy explodes with the ball in his hands.
Of course, the man under center needs to make it all work.
Diggs tied for the NFL lead last year with eight catches of 40-plus yards. Vikings QB Kirk Cousins has only a fraction of Allen’s athleticism, but Cousins lofts a catchable deep ball. Allen must improve at it.
Diggs surely will help Allen underneath.
Former Bills safety Mark Kelso had a favorite phrase he liked to use: “separation early in the down.”
It’s a huge help to a young quarterback because he sees the guy open a fraction of a second sooner and can feel better about his read.
Diggs has a lot of nuanced moves that help him get free, a little like Stevie Johnson, except not so unorthodox. He sets up his slants, hitches and fades well. He ran the pivot route that Daboll loves for a wide open catch vs. the Panthers in 2018.
Diggs also plays bigger than his 6-foot, 195-pound frame suggests. He ranked No. 2 in pulling down the ball in “contested catch situations,” at a 64% rate, according to Pro Football Focus.
“The tape doesn’t do it justice,” then-Vikes coordinator John DeFilippo told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that year. “His ball skills are fantastic, the way he tracks the football in the air.”
Now for a deep breath: All of this is not a guarantee that Daboll & Co. will have a top-10 offense for the first time since most of Bills Mafia was in diapers.
Dion Dawkins needs to string together two good years in a row. Cody Ford needs to prove himself. The tight end position needs to rise out of the bottom quarter of the league. And there’s the upward trajectory of Allen that everyone is counting on.
But the Diggs deal gives the Bills' offense something they shoot for in the nuclear physics business: critical mass.
Maybe, just maybe, this attack is ready to explode.