The Minnesota Vikings knew that their depth at wide receiver was going to be tested last Sunday when they faced the Denver Broncos. Charles Johnson didn’t participate during practice at all that week after suffering a rib injury, and Jarius Wright didn’t practice at all until Friday because of a hand injury.
Johnson was ultimately inactive for the game and, while Wright was active, he was only on the field for one play because of the injury to his wrist. That meant that players such as Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs were going to have to step up in a big way.
Thielen has been active every game this season and is a big contributor on special teams. He got extended offensive action against the Broncos, though, catching six passes for 70 yards.
The standout, however, had to be Diggs. He had shown plenty of flashes in training camp and the preseason but because of all the depth the Vikings have at receiver he had not been activated in any of the team’s first three games. But he was able to show off his abilities once again in his first start, against the No. 1 defense in the NFL. Diggs tied the Vikings franchise record for most receptions by a receiver in his first game with six and was able to record a team-high 87 receiving yards in the game.
“He was productive in his first opportunity to get out and play, but I think that carried over from everything you’ve seen in the preseason,” Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said of the team’s rookie receiver. “He made a lot of plays in the preseason and a very talented football player.
“Diggs, he had a productive day. There’s a lot he can improve on as well.”
The biggest thing that needs correcting is ball security. That showed up some in training camp and it has now transferred into his first regular season game, as he put the ball on the ground twice.
Luckily for the Vikings, the ball went right back to Diggs on both occasions and he was able to recover the fumble, but he was not happy with himself that he did that in the game because he knows that the outcome could have been a lot worse.
“Putting the ball on the ground, it’s one of those things that I didn’t lose it,” he said. “So I thanked God for that opportunity and said, ‘Don’t do it again.’ And, boom, it happened again. I took it real serious, I was real hard on myself after the game because that wins and loses games for teams. So I don’t want to be the guy that does that … like we saw (Monday) when the Lions played the Seahawks. It’s crucial, ball security, as far as holding the ball and I don’t want to be in that position. I want to do things the right way.”
What he means by doing things the right way is how he works in practice. After playing in a regular-season game for the first time, he knows how different it is compared to practice, but he also knows that it is in practice where he will develop better habits when it comes to ball security.
“I have to have better habits as far as tucking the ball. The first fumble, got to be wrist above the elbow, that’s still my fault. And then the second one, I just got to tuck it. (Mike Zimmer) is going to give me a hard time; I need a hard time because that can’t happen in a game and it could have been crucial in the game and I don’t want to let my team down. Just like out here, catch the ball and tuck it. Do everything the right way so I can have those good habits.”
Even though there are areas of his game he still needs to work on, Diggs showed a lot of positives in this game. First and foremost, he showed that the moment was never too big for him. Starting on the road, against an undefeated team with the No. 1 defense and playing in “America’s game of the week” could have gotten overwhelming for a rookie that was getting his first reps.
That wasn’t the case for Diggs. He said that he was “excited” to be playing in his first game, but he was never nervous or overwhelmed.
He also ran disciplined routes. Route running can often take awhile for rookie wide receivers to get down, but Diggs was playing as if he had been doing it against professional defensive backs for years.
Nothing showed that more than one of the routes he ran late in the fourth quarter. The Vikings were down by three points and were driving down the field to try to tie the game or take the lead.
Quarterback Teddy BridgewaterTeddy Bridgewater lined up in a shotgun formation with Diggs out wide to the right. Aqib Talib, one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, was covering him, but Diggs was able to completely turn him around. The rookie ran straight ahead, gave a little move that sent Talib running one way and Diggs ran the other way wide open. Bridgewater found him and the two connected for a 21-yard gain.
It is those plays that give people high expectations for the rookie and his quarterback can’t wait to see what he does next.
“Stefon, he stepped up big for us,” Bridgewater said. “For him to see action in his first NFL game against the No. 1 defense in the NFL, I think he played very good, and we’re going to expect some more big things from him this year.”