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How Cowboys CB Trevon Diggs rose from Stefon Diggs’ younger brother to NFL interception leader

FRISCO, Texas — The whole group message celebrated over FaceTime.

Dallas Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs and Buffalo Bills receiver Stefon Diggs logged on the night the NFL announced each had earned a 2021 Pro Bowl berth. Their brother Darez joined the video call, too, as did roughly a dozen more family members and longtime friends. Five-year-old Aaiden Diggs, Trevon’s son, celebrated excitedly nearby. And Stephanie Diggs, the mother now of two Pro Bowl selections, asked Siri: Have brothers ever been selected to the Pro Bowl the same year? Then she asked herself: “How cool is that?”

“Probably one of my favorite moments of this year, for real,” Trevon Diggs said of the Dec. 22 FaceTime call. “Because that’s my brother and I love him to death. Just being able to go up there with him, that’s fire.”

This was also their late father’s dream, a vision he articulated on a Halloween imprinted vividly in Stephanie’s memory. Young Stefon dressed in a Power Rangers costume that night. The brothers searched door to door for the biggest candy bar. Stephanie and Aron, whom congestive heart failure claimed in 2008, waited in the car. Aron told her: “One of my sons is going to make the league.”

“Yeah, right,” Stephanie told USA TODAY Sports she retorted. “That’s what all fathers say. Everyone thinks their son is going to make it to the league.”

She redefined the goal as her boys reached middle school and high school. An Amtrak attendant, Stephanie was often on the road several days in a row and hoped chiefly that her sons could earn scholarships and receive a college education.

But now, Aron’s dream has become reality for not one son but two. Stefon, after an NFL-best 1,535 receiving yards last season, has caught 94 balls for 1,144 yards and nine touchdowns in his 2021 campaign. Trevon leads the league with 11 interceptions, two of which he has returned for touchdowns. His 21 pass deflections rank second only to New England’s J.C. Jackson. The resume was sufficient for the Diggs brothers to join elite company as one of three Pro Bowl sibling duos this year, alongside pass rushers Joey and Nick Bosa (Chargers, 49ers), as well as Eagles center Jason Kelce and Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce.

That ball-hawking has helped the Cowboys defense rebound from 28th in points allowed (29.6 per game) last season to seventh (20.8).

Diggs celebrates most how his playmaking improves team performance, his jubilation evident on Dec. 26 when the Cowboys claimed the NFC East title and celebrated after a 56-14 trouncing of Washington.

He intercepted Washington quarterback Taylor Heinicke on Dallas’ first defensive snap that night, setting up his offense for their first touchdown of the game. In the postgame locker room, streaming on Instagram Live, Diggs relished a “COWBOYS RUN THE EAST” T-shirt and hat emblazoned with an “NFC EAST CHAMPIONS” patch.

“Came a long way,” he told viewers watching the stream. “Came a long way. We were some [expletive] last year!”

He laughed and shut off the stream.

Dallas Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs (7) runs off of the field after a game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium.

Dallas Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs (7) runs off of the field after a game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium.

Risk, reward of rare traits

Trevon organized his 2021 offseason intentionally. He lined up opposite Stefon, pleading for “one more time” if he lost in drills that Trevon credits with “accelerating” his transition to the NFL. Trevon studied film, too, including of his rookie-year pass deflections. He lamented that he broke up 14 passes but secured only three interceptions (21.4%). The growth that followed has allowed him to snag 11 of 21 deflections this season, a drastic increase to 52.3%.

Diggs credits Cowboys coaches with guiding technique development still raw after Alabama coach Nick Saban shifted him from receiver to full-time corner in 2017. He says Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn gives him freedom to play with aggression, and cornerbacks coach Al Harris hones technique that ensures his movements are sharp. Quinn laughs at the suggestion that Diggs’ ability to intercept more passes than any NFL player in 39 years stems from coaching.

“That would be a lot of (expletive),” Quinn said. “In the NFL, if you (utilize) rare traits, there’s a chance that you got some big production. And he’s delivered on those.

“This is a rare competitor who works really hard at his game.”

Quinn marvels at those traits, including the second-year defender’s ability to track the “flash” of a ball and transition mid-play from defender to de facto receiver.

“So damn impressive,” Quinn said.

Diggs’ craft is complex. Cowboys coaches laud his hand-eye coordination, ball skills, speed and quickness. His film study is influenced heavily by his roots as a receiver. After coaches announce game assignments, Diggs asks himself: What routes are most likely to arise in each formation? What tendencies does his assigned receiver show at the top of a release or at the point of catch? He narrates one-on-one drills between receivers and defensive backs in Cowboys practices, calling out routes before the snap with accuracy receiver Amari Cooper measures as correct nine times out of 10. Diggs figures: The more information he commits to memory before kickoff, the more fluidly he will act in real time.

“Some players have great anticipation and awareness and judgment on that, and some players just aren’t quite the same level,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “When (cornerbacks) know the ball has got to come out in a certain amount of time based on the pass rush or they can see depending on what the coverage is that the offense is keeping more guys in to protect, and that changes the depth routes and type of patterns and so forth? Guys that are really good out there, they see all that (and) process in milliseconds.

“(Diggs) is obviously playing very well and doing those things very well. And a lot of that’s confidence.”

Sure, Diggs has preyed on NFC East backup quarterbacks in Heinicke and the Giants’ Mike Glennon. But he has also swiped balls this season from Tom Brady in Tampa Bay, Justin Herbert in Los Angeles and Mac Jones in New England. Against the Patriots, Diggs said he recognized from film study a double slant to the front side that guided an interception returned 42 yards for a go-ahead touchdown with 2:27 to play in regulation of what would ultimately prove a 35-29 Cowboys overtime win.

The risk of that aggressive mindset flared the immediate next play when Patriots receiver Kendrick Bourne beat Diggs on a double move and escaped for a 75-yard touchdown. Diggs continues to judge when to bite on a route. Cardinals receiver A.J. Green shook him on a double move last Sunday that resulted in a 42-yard pass to the 3-yard line on Arizona’s first drive. Cowboys Pro Bowl rookie linebacker Micah Parsons defends Diggs as a “gambler” who the team knows will “fix his mistakes” while embracing the edgy style that brings such volume of big plays.

“Every corner has gotten beat,” Belichick said. “Every corner has had a pass caught on them. But all the good ones I’ve been around have that confidence that they forget about the play, learn from it and (move) onto the next play.

“Whatever it is, try to improve on that. But continue to play with a high level of aggressiveness and awareness.”

Dallas Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs (7) laughed as he hands the ball to back judge Greg Steed (12) after losing his helmet on a kick return against New Orleans Saints during the first half  at Caesars Superdome.

Dallas Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs (7) laughed as he hands the ball to back judge Greg Steed (12) after losing his helmet on a kick return against New Orleans Saints during the first half at Caesars Superdome.

What’s next

As the Cowboys travel to Philadelphia for their regular-season finale Saturday night, Diggs’ 11 picks tie Cowboys Hall of Fame cornerback Everson Walls’ franchise record, set in 1981. No NFL player has hit the mark since . If Diggs plays – he was ruled questionable Thursday with illness but not placed in COVID-19 protocol – he can chase sole possession of the mark. He can also aim to extend a streak of intercepting at least one pass in each career game against the Eagles.

Diggs claims four picks in three matchups so far, jumping Eagles rookie receiver DeVonta Smith out route in the teams’ matchup earlier this fall and returning the pick of another former Alabama teammate in Jalen Hurts 59 yards for a touchdown.

That was his third interception of the year en route to a personal goal of 10. He achieved that Dec. 19 at the Giants with three games to play. So he reset his expectations.

“If I could get another 10, that would be great in these last three games,” he quipped Dec. 23. “I’m just going to put my best foot forward and see what I come up with.”

To Diggs, a future with his best foot forward spells exponential growth toward position mastery. He has now played five seasons since Saban directed the change and left then-teenaged Trevon calling Stefon in tears. But “I’m still 100% not really comfortable with it,” Trevon said. “I’m still learning, honestly (and) really don’t know how long it’s going to take.” That prospect should haunt quarterbacks across the league.

Trevon embraces the grind toward continued improvement, knowing Stefon and Stephanie will be beside him. The memory of Aron, who was a Cowboys fan, delivers further motivation. Trevon’s own son, Aaiden, turned 5 in November. His football acumen, drive and intellect seem to transcend his years.

Aaiden, who became a fan favorite during training camp on HBO’s docuseries “Hard Knocks,” told USA TODAY Sports he has not yet intercepted a pass in his career but he did recover a fumble and return it for a touchdown. “He dropped it and I got it off the ground and made the touchdown,” Aaiden explained, also noting “I had two blocks on my friend Steven.”

He cites his father’s interception history with encyclopedic detail, remembering which came while dad wore jersey number “27” (Trevon’s rookie number) vs. “7,” and which dad capped off for a touchdown as Aaiden had requested.

Aaiden Diggs watches his father, Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs, in Dallas' home game against the Washington Football Team

Aaiden Diggs watches his father, Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs, in Dallas’ home game against the Washington Football Team

Aaiden cheered for his father on Dec. 26 as he intercepted Heinicke’s first pass, and the pre-kindergarten student stayed up past bedtime to further analyze the game in real-time from an AT&T Stadium suite. Aaiden knew whether a carry came from Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott or Tony Pollard, and he mimicked a third-quarter pass breakup from Cowboys cornerback Anthony Brown from the steps of his suite. When the Cowboys special teams returned a blocked punt for a touchdown, Aaiden celebrated with a robot dance precise enough to suggest he inherited his father’s hand-eye coordination.

At times, Stephanie reminds her grandson to opine more privately, like when he tells uncle Stefon that he believes CeeDee Lamb is a superior route runner or when Aaiden expressed disapproval toward Elliott—as the running back stopped by Aaiden’s fifth birthday party—because he “didn’t run very hard” last game. But mostly, the Diggs family just embraces yet another generation of a decades-deep football family as Aaiden begins to grasp how his father has become a household name.

“My name is Aaiden Diggs, my dad is Trevon Diggs,” the 5-year-old says with the pride of a kid who seems to actually understand some of the magnitude of his father’s special season.

“But I can’t call him Trevon Diggs,” Aaiden continues. “Because I can only call him ‘my dad.’”

Follow USA Today Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How Cowboys’ Trevon Diggs became NFL’s interception king

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