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Next man up: Quandre Diggs' short-yardage coverage makes him special

Finishing our analysis of CB Quandre Diggs' development from the 2015 season.

Phil Sears-USA TODAY Sports

Next man up is a series of articles examining players further down the depth chart, particularly young players being developed for larger roles.

This time, we are looking at cornerback Quandre Diggs.
For the first article in this series, see Next man up: Quandre Diggs (Part one)
For the second article in this series, see Next man up: Quandre Diggs (Part two)

Part of the pre-draft criticism on Diggs was that he "(c)ould struggle against short-area speedsters from slot." Obviously, we want our nickel defensive back to be able to have good coverage skills, but especially in this short-area slot kind of situation. In 2015, Quandre Diggs proved he could get the job done.

Stopping Underneath Crossers

In Week 1 of the 2015 season on the road at San Diego, the Lions built a sizable lead before getting shredded by Keenan Allen. If you remember, cram9030 had a nice FanPost on who Allen got open against. I went through the tape and watched the coverages again, and have one modification to make to what he's written up.

If you notice on the chart, only the last completion is against Diggs, and it's only for 5 yards. Let's take a look at that play now.

2015 at SDO, 4Q (3:24). Second-and-8 at the Detroit 20.

San Diego lines up shotgun trips left and on the right side of the field sends 11 WR Steve Johnson deep to the post and 39 HB Danny Woodhead on a wide wheel route. What that does is clear out the shallow area by pulling 23 CB Darius Slay (over Johnson) deep and the flat defender 57 OLB Josh Bynes away from the shallow middle. This is designed to give 13 WR Keenan Allen room to work the shallow cross against 28 CB Quandre Diggs.

Detroit sends 55 MLB Stephen Tulloch as part of a five-man rush package (Bynes initially blitzes, but peels off when Woodhead releases to the wheel). Diggs stays with Allen all the way across the field in excellent man coverage and immediately takes him down for zero extra yards after the catch. Had Detroit been able to do this on crossers all game -- whether Allen, Johnson, or 89 TE Ladarius Green, many long plays would have been cut short for only a handful of yards:

Nearly half of Allen's 166 receiving yards were almost all after the catch, as his 81 yards after catch (YAC) led all wide receivers. Looking at this in a vacuum, you could say that both Allen and the lack of tight defensive coverage contributed to such a high output. But teammate Stevie Johnson was right behind him ranking second in YAC as 79 of his 82 receiving yards were after the catch as well! This should instead point to terrible execution by the Detroit Lions defense and good in-game adjustments by head coach Mike McCoy.

Based on re-watching that game, it would seem a big part of the problem in stopping the underneath crossers was that we didn't put Quandre Diggs in the game more often to take away that part of the game plan. Diggs played just 18 snaps to 30 CB Josh Wilson's 50 snaps on defense. Unfortunately for Detroit, Wilson was the veteran, so putting him in the game over Diggs at the time was the "safer" move.

2015 MIN, 2Q (1:01). First-and-10 at the Detroit 40.

Here's another example of Diggs playing the shallow cross, this time in the second meeting with Minnesota at home. The Lions come out in a disguised cover-1 robber with 32 SS James Ihedigbo as the "rat in the hole." Otherwise, the coverage is loose man across the board: 11 WR Mike Wallace covered at the top by Slay, 14 WR Stefon Diggs at the bottom by 31 CB Rashean Mathis, (our) Diggs on 17 WR Jarius Wright in the slot, and linebackers matched up on the TE and FB.

The Vikings send vertical stems breaking at 12 to 15 yards (Dig, Curl, and Comeback) to clear out for Wright running the shallow cross underneath it all. Again, Diggs stays with his man in great position the whole way and gets an immediate takedown after the catch. This is a nice demonstration of both his cover skills plus open field tackling ability in a different context.

Playing the Coverage, not the Man

What I'd like to finish out the look at Quandre Diggs with are two examples showing why he is regarded as an intelligent player with "plus instincts." We saw it with run defense, but it is also true in pass coverage. Both of these plays are also from the same home game against Minnesota.

2015 MIN, 1Q (3:59). Third-and-11 at the Detroit 19.

The Vikings go trips left with both the running back and tight end to 5 QB Teddy Bridgewater's right side. The pass patterns are essentially a cover-2 beater Flat-7 combination to the left side and a potential man beater rub release up the seam by Wallace into a deep post. Finally, there is a chip and release safety valve by the tight end to the right flat.

Defensively, the Lions play it conservatively on third-and-long, dropping seven into a basic cover-3. Notice here how everyone underneath is smartly guarding the sticks on third down. 94 DE Ezekiel Ansah beat 75 LT Matt Kalil around the edge and almost sacked Teddy, flushing him to the outside. This is the kind of situation against Seattle where we saw coverage break down against Russell Wilson.

Diggs stays with his assignment to protect the first down marker, and keeps his eyes on the quarterback. By both staying aware of the throw and position of the receiver, Diggs makes a fantastic break on the ball to hold the Vikings to a field goal.

2015 MIN, 4Q (8:57). Third-and-6 at the Minnesota 25.

The Vikings run a version of mesh here, with the two-legged triangle read as 19 WR Adam Thielen over the middle with 82 TE Kyle Rudolph on an intermediate curl. 11 WR Mike Wallace coming across underneath Thielen's route has the potential to set up Diggs to be picked by Whitehead coming across with Wallace.

The Lions' defense is in two-man under, with 27 FS Glover Quin and 42 Isa Abdul-Quddus floating high. 57 OLB Josh Bynes blitzes since 44 FB Matt Asiata stays in as protection. This leaves just Whitehead and Diggs underneath and inside to deal with the mesh crossers. Watch what Diggs does:

Alert to the pick play, Diggs calls the switch; he hands off Thielen to Whitehead and picks up Wallace coming to his side. The blitz by Bynes plus 91 DE Jason Jones got good pressure on Teddy, and with both shallow routes now covered he had to basically dump the ball.

Your starting nickel

It's pretty clear that Quandre Diggs delivers almost everything you could possibly want from a nickel cornerback. He tackles well in both run support and the open field against receivers, reads well in loose man and zone coverage, and shows deep understanding of what the system calls are trying to do. Last year, the starting nickel position was still considered a camp battle. In 2016, the battle is over because Bob Quinn likes Quandre Diggs:

"Quandre had a good season last season for the Lions," Quinn said. "I have fully evaluated him and I think he’s a good player, primarily as an inside corner. That’s the best thing that he does, and that’s a very important position. We’re going to be in sub or nickel defense 70% to 75% of the time, so you really need three corners on the field at all times."

There's a lot to love and Lions fans should be confident we finally have a quality entrenched starter at nickel. I understand some people feeling like Skee-Lo and wishing he was a little bit taller. If Diggs was like 2 or 3 inches taller with enough reach to play press more effectively, he'd be a complete corner stud. Of course, he probably would not have lasted into the sixth round if that had been the case. This ought to be less of an issue with DeAndre Levy returning to active status anyway, since Levy can match up against big tight ends or taller receivers shifted inside if necessary. Smart alignments and defensive calls by Austin can ensure Diggs is put in good situations to be successful.