Late in the second quarter on Sunday, Kirk Cousins took a shotgun snap, dropped back five steps and launched a sideline throw he trusted Stefon Diggs would catch as soon as the receiver pulled even with defender Darius Slay.
Diggs placed a hand on Slay's back, tracked the ball's flight over his left shoulder and caught it between his hands for a 44-yard gain. If it's an exercise that seems almost automatic these days — Diggs has seven catches of 40 yards or more this season — it wouldn't have appeared so easy a couple of months back.
Ten weeks ago, Diggs missed two days' worth of meetings and practice following the Vikings' second loss of the season, confirming at the end of the week he'd been fined more than $200,000 for his absences. His dissatisfaction, sources told the Star Tribune at the time, had brewed through the offseason and centered around several factors — among them the direction of the Vikings' offense, Diggs' place behind Dalvin Cook and Adam Thielen in the pecking order, and the passing game's lack of production.
Diggs had 13 catches for 209 yards at that point of the season; he's caught 43 passes for 687 yards since then. And on his way to his second straight 1,000-yard season, he's quelled many of his issues (at least for the time being) by excelling in a manner not seen by a Vikings receiver since Randy Moss.
Diggs, who now has 56 catches for 996 yards this season, is on pace to become just the 15th player since the AFL-NFL merger to surpass 1,200 receiving yards while catching fewer than 70 passes in a season. His average of 17.8 yards per catch would be the highest by a Vikings 1,000-yard receiver since Moss averaged 18.7 yards per catch in 2000, and the fifth-highest ever by a Vikings receiver in a 1,000-yard season.
While Diggs had shown occasional flashes as a deep target earlier in his career, he'd subsisted in a Vikings offense that relied more on quick passes, averaging 11.6 yards per catch in his first four seasons. In a Vikings loss to the Lions at U.S. Bank Stadium in 2016, he caught 13 passes for 80 yards, effectively working as a running back for a team that had to substitute short passes for its lack of a ground game.
Diggs had nine career catches of 40 yards or more before this season, never posting more than three in a year. This season, his seven catches of 40-plus yards already have matched Bernard Berrian's 2008 output for the most in a season since Moss. Diggs has also surpassed all but two of Moss' 40-plus season totals in Minnesota: his 14 during his iconic rookie season in 1998 and his eight in 2000.
This season, Diggs has blossomed as one of the NFL's top deep threats as the Vikings have used play-action to resurrect a downfield passing game that hadn't produced more than nine passes of 40-plus yards as a team since 2009. He's averaging 14.6 air yards per target this season (the 10th-highest figure in the league, according to NFL Next Gen Stats). And only one player — Denver's Courtland Sutton — has accounted for a higher percentage of his team's air yards than Diggs' 42.11%.
"I think the big thing with [Diggs] is, he's got big, strong hands, and he's got really good acceleration," coach Mike Zimmer said. "He does a nice job at the line of scrimmage when people are trying to press him, and he can accelerate and run away from them. And then, he does a nice job a lot of times of getting the defender on his back hip a lot of times on these 'go' balls."
Diggs has been able to maintain his production even with teams keying on him more often because of Thielen's hamstring injury. But as the Vikings often work with multiple tight ends, using Irv Smith Jr. as their slot receiver on passing downs next to Diggs and Bisi Johnson, Diggs has asserted himself as the Vikings' top weapon. He's all but a lock to lead the team in receiving yards for the first time since his rookie year.
The Vikings will continue to hope for Thielen's return Sunday in Los Angeles, and they could have to recalibrate their offense, at least to some degree, when he does come back. But Sunday, as Cousins threaded a tight sideline throw to Diggs for a 44-yard completion behind tight coverage from Slay, it was striking to witness the chemistry in a relationship that appeared frayed earlier this season.
"Diggs did a great job running it down, holding on, keeping his feet in bounds," Cousins said. "No surprise that he did that. You trust him in those moments to go down the field and make the play, and he did."