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Stefon Diggs and the second half of the season: What’s happening?

We dive into the numbers and try to make sense of the late-season swoons

AFC Wild Card Playoffs - Pittsburgh Steelers v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

The Buffalo Bills have a Stefon Diggs problem. There, my audition for inclusion in the National media conglomerate is complete. The narrative is that Diggs is unhappy, that he’s a malcontent, that there is “some sort of rift” between him and quarterback Josh Allen that’s kept the duo from operating at maximum efficiency.

I think that most of who actually watch the Bills realize that narrative isn’t true. However, the Bills definitely do seem to have a Stefon Diggs problem. It just isn’t the one that many talking heads would have you believe is the issue.

For the last two seasons, Diggs has started the year on pace for a career year. Then, halfway through the season, that trajectory came crashing back down to Earth, and Diggs was allowed to be eliminated from the game plan by multiple teams. His poor showings in elimination games over the last four years has been replayed over and over, but it’s more than that. It’s as if the Bills are content to let opposing defenses dictate that their best offensive weapon doesn’t see the ball in the biggest games.

During the 2023 season, much was made about the reduced role Diggs had in the offense once interim offensive coordinator Joe Brady took over for the fired Ken Dorsey. But what if I told you that, under a full season of Dorsey in 2022, nearly the exact same disappearing act took place at the halfway point of the campaign?

Consider the table below. I’ve included Diggs’ two seasons under offensive coordinator Brian Daboll in 2020 and 2021, dissected at the halfway point of each year, for reference as well.

Stefon Diggs’ Statistics with the Bills

Diggs Splits First Half Diggs Splits Second Half
Diggs Splits First Half Diggs Splits Second Half
2023 Games 1-9 2023 Games 10-17
Rec: 70 Rec: 37
Yards: 834 Yards: 349
TD: 7 TD: 1
Targets: 97 Targets: 63
2022 Games 1-9 2022 Games 10-17
Rec: 72 Rec: 36
Yards: 985 Yards: 444
TD: 7 TD: 4
Targets: 99 Targets: 55
2021 Games 1-9 2021 Games 10-17
Rec: 56 Rec: 47
Yards: 750 Yards: 475
TD: 4 TD: 6
Targets: 86 Targets: 78
2020 Games 1-8 2020 Games 9-16
Rec: 54 Rec: 73
Yards: 695 Yards: 840
TD: 3 TD: 5
Targets: 79 Targets: 87
For the last two seasons, Diggs’ splits in the first half and the second half are nearly identical

If you’re familiar with the film My Cousin Vinny, you’ll understand the reference I’m about to make regarding Diggs’ splits in both 2022 and 2023: They are nearly [Claps Hands] eye-dentical.

For one, it’s incredible how Dorsey’s offense led to two white-hot starts in the beginning of each of the last two seasons. Combining the first nine games of 2022 and the first nine games of 2023 would give Diggs 142 receptions, 1,819 yards, and 14 receiving touchdowns on 196 targets.

And yet, when splitting at the halfway point of a season of Dorsey in 2022 and half a season of Brady in 2023, both the production and the opportunity dropped off a cliff for Diggs in the second half of the each season. The eight additional targets in 2023 are easy to explain, as Buffalo’s Week 17 games vs. the Cincinnati Bengals in 2022 was canceled due to Damar Hamlin’s cardiac arrest. Even with that game missing, however, the stat lines are eerily similar between Diggs’ 2022 and 2023 second halves.

And sure, perhaps you’re out there thinking that Diggs would obviously have lesser statistics in the final eight games of season than he would in the first nine given that basic math shows us that there’s one more game in the “first half” than the “second half” of a season containing an odd number of games. That would be a valid criticism, one of many I’m sure. However, let’s break this down on a per-game basis. I’ll stick to the last two seasons to start.

  • Diggs per-game stats, first half 2022: 11 targets, 8 catches, 109.4 yards, .8 TD
  • Diggs per-game stats, second half 2022: 7.9 targets, 5.1 catches, 63.4 yards, .6 TD
  • Diggs per-game stats, first half 2023: 10.8 targets, 7.8 catches, 92.7 yards, .8 TD
  • Diggs per-game stats, second half 2023: 7.9 targets, 4.6 catches, 43.6 yards, .1 TD

Over the last two seasons, the first half and second half of the season breakdowns in Diggs’ opportunities has remained constant. He produced at essentially the same rate on a per-game basis in the first half of 2022 that he did in the first half of 2023; and again, he produced at essentially the same rate in the second half of 2022 that he did in the second half of 2023.

As you can see when looking at the chart above, the Brian Daboll years were more consistent for Diggs in terms of opportunity throughout a season. Diggs saw fewer targets in the second half of each season — including the 2020 season, the last one where NFL teams played an even 16 games — but what varied a bit was Diggs’ own efficiency. In that 2020 season, for example, Diggs was better in the second half of the year on fewer targets, as he reached an absurd level of performance en route to his (and the franchise’s, in terms of wideouts) only First-Team All-Pro nod.

Oddly enough, Diggs’ weakest season with the team — the 2021 season — is the one where he saw the most consistent opportunities throughout. What changed from the first half to the second half was his production, not the number of times he had passes coming his way. That 2021 season was also the one where Josh Allen passed the most, as he threw a career-high 646 times that year.

On a per-game basis, here’s how Diggs’ first and second halves to the 2020 and 2021 seasons shake out:

  • Diggs per-game stats, first half 2020: 9.9 targets, 6.8 catches, 86.9 yards, .4 TD
  • Diggs per-game stats, second half 2020: 10.9 targets, 9.1 catches, 105 yards, .6 TD
  • Diggs per-game stats, first half 2021: 9.6 targets, 6.2 catches, 83.3 yards, .4 TD
  • Diggs per-game stats, second half 2021: 9.8 targets, 5.9 catches, 59.4 yards, .8 TD

That Diggs’ best season was the 2020 campaign should come as no surprise for a few reasons, the biggest of which is that the Bills’ receiving talent was as good as it’s ever been that season. Diggs came on board a group that already had John Brown, who had a career-year in 2019, and Cole Beasley, who had his best season in 2020, as well. Buffalo also drafted Gabe Davis in the fourth round that year and Isaiah Hodgins in the sixth round. That was a strong room.

Why did Diggs’ numbers increase so dramatically in the second half of the 2020 campaign? Well, Brown suffered a bad ankle injury against the Arizona Cardinals, causing him to miss five of Buffalo’s final six games. Diggs’ numbers in those five games? 57 targets, 47 catches, 553 yards, four touchdowns. The Bills schemed for him, and Diggs delivered the goods even though defenses were keying on him.

Why could Diggs remain so productive in spite of defenses focusing on him? Buffalo’s pieces around him were just that good. Look at where the dip in second-half production came. Think about who was on the roster in those seasons. The last time Buffalo added a significant veteran piece to the receiver room was 2021. They added Emmanuel Sanders, who was 34 years old, to a trio that already included a 32 year-old Beasley. The team clearly needed to revitalize the position with some younger, more dynamic players.

In 2022, the team tried to go with Diggs plus a youth movement, and it worked out so poorly that they had to sign both John Brown and Cole Beasley — both of whom had been out of the league at the time they were signed — to play significant snaps. To be fair, they had signed Jamison Crowder in the offseason, but he caught just six passes for 60 yards while missing time with a litany of injuries. Aside from adding those veterans, they relied on Davis, then in his third year, to take a leap forward. He didn’t. They gave Isaiah McKenzie a larger role in hopes that he would take a leap forward. He didn’t. They added Khalil Shakir in the fifth round of the draft, but he wasn’t used much.

In short, the 2022 vintage of Buffalo’s offense had trouble finding Diggs at times because he was essentially the only dangerous pass-catcher on the roster. In 2023, the Bills tried to address that problem by adding a dynamic tight end in Dalton Kincaid. They relied on Gabe Davis to take a step forward in his fourth year. He didn’t. They gave Khalil Shakir a larger role and he excelled in it. They signed Deonte Harty and Trent Sherfield in hopes that they could perform better than they had with their former clubs in limited roles for Buffalo. However, when push came to shove, teams were still able to lock Diggs down and prevent the Bills’ passing game from flowing through its best receiver.

Final Musings

In the last two seasons, the Bills have definitely had a Stefon Diggs problem. However, that problem is that their star wideout doesn’t see as many opportunities to make plays as the season progresses. He hasn’t had the same kind of target share in the second half of either of his seasons without Brian Daboll as the offensive coordinator. Whether it was Ken Dorsey or Joe Brady, it seemed as if the Bills’ offensive bosses allowed opposing defenses to dictate that Diggs would not be part of a game plan.

While the results were solid in each regular season — of the 15 second-half games in the last two seasons combined, the Bills’ record was 13-2 — the inability to incorporate Diggs consistently in the playoffs is definitely a detriment. The Bills aren’t the only team in possession of an offensive weapon that every other team knows is the focal point of the passing game. They seem to be one of the few, though, that can’t find a way to scheme that focal point open when all the chips are pushed to the middle.

The Los Angeles Rams find ways to scheme Cooper Kupp the ball, and they did so before they had Puka Nacua paired with him. The Minnesota Vikings find ways to scheme Justin Jefferson the ball even though everyone in the stadium knows it’s going his way. The Green Bay Packers with Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams found ways to make sure that No. 17 had the ball even when his teammates at receiver were less-than-stellar. Jared Goff didn’t stop feeding Amon-Ra St. Brown before tight end Sam Laporta came aboard, and he hasn’t stopped feeding him since, either.

Diggs’ playoff production has shrunk over the last four years, as well. After a monster 2020 postseason (31 targets, 20 catches, 311 yards, 2 touchdowns in three games), Diggs has seen 46 targets in six playoff games over the last three seasons. He has 27 catches for 289 yards without a touchdown in those contests.

None of what I’ve presented here is meant to suggest that Diggs is the problem. In fact, I think the opposite: Buffalo’s offensive scheming has been the problem, seemingly perfectly content going away from their most dynamic playmaker in the biggest situations far too often. The Bills need to find creative route combinations to ensure that he touches the ball more when the season is on the line.

Look at what the Kansas City Chiefs did with tight end Travis Kelce last weekend. They lined him up in the backfield to dictate coverage matchups. Buffalo did this with Diggs a bit, as well, even handing him the ball on some shotgun runs. However, more often than not, they left him outside, or motioned him into the slot, and allowed the Chiefs to follow him easily with whichever coverage person they pleased.

How can the Bills solve this issue? One way is through making a serious investment in the receiver room this offseason. Signing former second-round pick K.J. Hamler to a futures deal isn’t a serious investment, nor is relying on 2023 fifth-round pick Justin Shorter. What would be a serious investment would be selecting a wideout in the first round of the 2024 NFL Draft. Adding someone like Adonai Mitchell, or Bryan Thomas Jr., or Xavier Legette, or any of the numerous exceptional receiving talents available in the draft would suffice.

Another is by taking a hard look at what concepts work in terms of ensuring that Diggs touches the football, and finding ways to incorporate those concepts from multiple formations and personnel groupings. The repeated bubble-screens to Diggs might have ensured that he had his hands on the ball, but they didn’t do much to move the needle in terms of creativity or creating danger for the defense. How about some angle routes out of the backfield? A wheel from the slot rather than a bubble-screen? Some mesh-traffic concepts over the middle could create absolute chaos if Dalton Kincaid or Dawson Knox are firing through that space, as well.

The Bills need to approach the 2024 NFL season as if it’s Super Bowl or bust. Finding ways to incorporate Stefon Diggs consistently shouldn’t be something we’re discussing, yet here we are. Great teams find ways to give their great players opportunities to be great. The Buffalo Bills’ offense has the chance to be one of the best in football, but they’ll need Stefon Diggs in order to achieve all that they’re capable of achieving.