Over the past few weeks, much has been discussed over the lack of production from Buffalo Bills WR Stefon Diggs. Since Week 6, he has not eclipsed 100 yards in a game with his highest total being 87 yards against Miami in Week 18 followed by 86 yards in Week 9.
The Bills have been dismissive of any speculation regarding the decline in productivity, stating that this is by design. Naturally, when production dips, other theories begin to surface to explain the change. Injuries are typically a common reason for a change in play and this theory holds some water.
At first, I was dismissive of the theory that Diggs was injured as he has not been on the injury report outside of a back designation heading into Week 10. While his yards and touchdowns have decreased, he was still making plays and an important part of the offense. However, looking at the snap counts and his overall usage, it did force me to reconsider my stance and dig into the matter further.
Within the information that statistics provides along with several clues looking at potential injuries before the decline, there is a strong suspicion that Stefon Diggs has been working through one or several injuries. Today’s article will look at the clues, possible injury or injuries, and data to explain why Stefon Diggs’ role has changed within the offense.
Diggs’ snap count began receiving scrutiny around mid-December when he began seeing playing time of 79% (KC), 46% (DAL), 60% (LAC), and 65% (NE), before rebounding to 88% (MIA). During that time frame, his highest yards total was 48 yards against Dallas.
Snap counts alone don’t tell the full story though. The Bills did see an uptick in the run game especially with the outburst of 266 yards against the Dallas Cowboys. Joe Brady, Bills offensive coordinator said that the run game was working and they kept feeding James Cook the ball. While this is true, the snap count for Stefon Diggs hypothetically should not decrease if you want your best players on the field.
Looking at the film, starting against Philadelphia and going through New England, Stefon Diggs would do one of three things after a play.
-He would either catch a pass and then stay in for a designed run play which he would not have to block for or he would outright leave the field.
-He would engage his blocking assignment on a run or pass play, then leave the field.
-He would run an intermediate to deep route and then leave the field unless it was a run play as mentioned above where he did not block.
When Diggs would leave, Trent Sherfield would replace him in the offense to block. During the Dallas and Los Angeles games, Sherfield did not record a receiving target but did see three targets without any catches against New England.
Diggs up to this point has always been a willing blocker, especially in 12 personnel which provides a variety of weapons on the field. This allows the offense to check in and out of plays to find the best mismatch possible.
Before this stretch of games, he played in nearly all of the offensive snaps but his production varied at times.
If Diggs was unable to block, what injury would be preventing him from blocking? What injury would prevent him from staying in the game after a catch or running a deep route?
As mentioned in the Film Room at Cover 1, Erik Turner mentioned that Diggs could be dealing with an abdomen injury. However, the abdomen encompasses a region and is comprised of several muscles that make up the core which include the internal obliques, external obliques, transverse abdominus, and rectus abdominus musculature.
These muscle groups provide support to the trunk from the ribs to the pelvis to protect internal organs and assist with breathing. This allows for flexion, rotation, and side-bending of the trunk.
Thinking about the function of the obliques and abdominals, consider how much they are involved during a football play. Blocking, turning to catch the football, protecting one’s self to take a hit, fighting for extra yards, twisting the body, assisting in deep breathing following a sprint, pretty much everything.
Referring back to describing Diggs’ decreased snap counts, he would rarely block during those games and he would have to exit after a play. If he was dealing with an abdomen/oblique issue that was aggravated with blocking, running deep, or twisting and catching the ball, it could easily require a brief rest to get through the game.
Previous Oblique Injury
If this is indeed an oblique or abdomen injury, this is not the first time that Diggs suffered this injury. He suffered an oblique injury in warmups before the Week 17 contest against the Dolphins during the 2020 season.
He spent the next three weeks on the injury report with the oblique injury, listed as questionable for the Wild Card game but his snap counts were largely not affected, going 93%, 84%, and 94%. Considering it was the playoffs, he gutted through the injury.
Pinpointing the Injury
Going back to this season’s decline in production, when did a potential injury happen? Were there multiple injuries? Why would the team not list this on the injury report? While the answer to the third question remains unknown, there are clues to the first two questions.
The only time Diggs was on the injury report besides veteran rest was ahead of the Week 10 game against the Denver Broncos with a back designation. This was potentially the result of his collision with a security guard in the end zone on the two-point conversion. At the time, he stated he was sore and it was a maintenance thing.
The following week, his snap count did go down in the New York Jets game due to starters getting pulled early in the fourth quarter.
Looking at the Philadelphia Eagles game sheds further light on when he potentially suffered an injury. He did play in 92 percent of snaps and had six receptions for 74 yards. Unfortunately, he did get knocked down and fell abruptly with 1:40 left in the third quarter on the Josh Allen touchdown run that put them up 24-14.
This was an injury that was reflected on the official play-by-play account on ESPN. Looking at the video below, he is blocking before disengaging as Allen crosses the goal line. At that point, Eagles LB Nick Morrow gives Diggs a late hit and he twists and falls, hitting his right side, and lying there momentarily.
Most oblique injuries occur due to overuse, forceful bending or twisting, or a direct blow to the area. The internal obliques are more commonly injured when looking at the specific musculature involved. Direct blows to the abdomen can injure the muscles, but indirect blows to other areas of the body can also cause injury and lead to limited production.
In this case report from a professional soccer player, the athlete sustained a violent blow to his right shoulder which caused a sudden extension of the left rib cage. Following the hit, he experienced popping and left parietal pain (ribcage area) and was forced to leave the match. Trunk rotation and sitting affected the area. Sneezing and and intense running also brought on pain within the area along with pinpoint tenderness.
Pain was absent during intense respiratory movement, abdominal contraction, and walking. There was later a hematoma in the area under the 11th rib showing the external oblique injury with no associated fractures on x-ray.
The athlete later received analgesic treatments to manage the pain and later a PRP injection with brief time off to play soccer 15 days after the injury and return to play after 21 days.
I highlight this in great detail because the mechanism for injury and timeline described is very similar to that of what we saw with Stefon Diggs. In his case, he took the blow to the left shoulder, potentially causing a sudden overstretching of the right side and possibly causing an oblique injury. The Bills had the benefit of the bye week to try and perform any potential injections and rehab; it’s impossible to know if he would have been on the injury report in Week 13. That was roughly a two-week period where they could have managed the injury between contests. This is a less common mechanism of injury, but the similarities are there.
If he continued to stress the musculature in the area over the next four contests and limited his snaps to get through the games, this could explain his decline in playing time, production, and overall abilities. With no pain during walking or other abdomen movement, he may have been able to participate in practice going at less than 100 percent speed.
Decline In Production
Whether this hit led to an injury after this play or not, this is where his snap counts began to become erratic and decline. For the remainder of the game, he only secured one catch for 14 yards on five targets. Not great production from your number-one receiver when you needed him the most in what was an essentially must-win game.
Even with a well-timed bye following the Eagles game, his production and snap counts fluctuated as indicated on Pro Football Reference. Looking deeper at the status, we saw his EPA drop off which further tells the story and helps explain why an injury may have led to his change in play.
EPA or Expected Points Added is a measure of how well a team performs relative to expectation. This essentially assigns a point value to each play. While two different plays may gain the same yardage on the box score, the situation in which the play is executed could have drastically different outcomes. Looking at Diggs concerning EPA, if he is not involved as often or his catches and yardage do not contribute towards scoring chances, then the EPA would expectedly drop.
His EPA production fluctuated during the season dating back to Week 5 but took a hard dive in Week 11 until Week 17.
To dive into these numbers and how this shows how the injury affected his production, below is a description from Cover 1’s Adam Pensel.
In reviewing certain key metrics that measure a WR’s production, Diggs’s numbers certainly show a decline, initially following the game in London against the Jaguars, and later, again after the loss to Philly.
One of the best ways to illustrate this is to view his EPA per play numbers and plot the 4-game moving average, which you’ll find below in red.
As you can see, Diggs was trending upward to start the year. But the trip to London where we first noticed he may have been injured resulted in a steady decline of his EPA per attempt. Outside of the Bengals game in Week 9, his production continued to fall off, likely as he was dealing with this injury.
The decision to put him on a snap count may have been made even though the Bills needed to win out to guarantee a spot in the playoffs. In my opinion, I thought the Week 18 matchup vs the Dolphins was the healthiest I’ve Diggs look on the field since that Week 4 matchup.
Looking back at these drops in production, we can also see where other injuries may have also affected his production.
Against the Jaguars in Week 5, Diggs is down for a few extra moments early in the game. Looking at closer review, he is tackled on a pass to the left, and at the end of the play, a Jaguars defender came in and attempted to punch out the ball. Instead, the defender punched Diggs in the right side of his ribs. He comes up holding his ribs and even reaches to touch them again briefly before lining up for the next play. While a punch to the ribs shouldn’t lead to an outright injury, taking further hits to the area could have exacerbated the already painful area.
Going back to the graph, we see a spike in production against Cincinnati but this was the game where he collided with a security guard in the end zone following a two-point conversion as noted above. He came up walking gingerly but never received an in-game injury designation. However, he did appear on the injury report the following week due to a back designation. At the time, he said the back injury was lingering and wanted to be proactive instead of reactive in managing the injury. We then see his EPA production trend downward.
Finally, we get back to where the potential abdomen injury occurred against Philadelphia as mentioned above. The injury against the Eagles may have just been too much to overcome or been more acute which led to a designed drop in production which led to the change in the EPA metrics. Eventually, it began tracking back up after his snap counts slowly increased until Week 18 against Miami. This implies that he was working through the injury and that he has slowly been getting better which would be expected with a muscle strain or even contusion.
The question or argument of why he is not on the injury report deserves to be asked. This may have come down to whether this injury required daily treatment, whether it limited his ability to practice, and whether it was more of a hurt versus injured issue. If every player had to be listed if they had pain, there would be close to 53 players on the injury report every week.
Between what the film is showing us on snap counts, possible injuries, and data, this can help explain why Stefon Diggs’ EPA production had dropped off during various portions of the season. Looking at things from a macro point of view, we can begin to understand how his production had dipped after each of these possible injuries noted above.
The drops in production would also coincide with injury timelines which could explain his play.
If there is indeed an injury or injuries, the team and Diggs are not letting us know. There is also a likely reason why it is not on the injury report. The Bills won’t give out any information that they don’t need to, but they also haven’t been fined by the league for injury report manipulation. But what is positive is that following the Week 18 win, Diggs appears to be improving which could greatly benefit the Bills offense during a deep playoff run.
He was able to play in 84 percent of offensive snaps against the Pittsburgh Steelers suggesting that he is trending in the right direction. Hopefully, Stefon Diggs is healthy enough in the playoffs to contribute and help the Bills to the Super Bowl.
Top Photo Credit: Bryan M. Bennett | Getty Images