Steelers

Carter’s Classroom: Moncrief won’t free up JuJu

The Steelers added Donte Moncrief, but they need another playmaker wide receiver outside the numbers to let JuJu Smith-Schuster be his best in Randy Fichtner’s offense. We go into another deep dive on stats and film on the Steelers.

JuJu Smith-Schuster - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

JuJu Smith-Schuster is ready to be the Steelers’ No. 1 receiver, but there’s no mistaking the team’s need for another playmaking wide receiver. Though they added Donte Moncrief in free agency, Kevin Colbert still needs to be active in the draft to find a receiver adept at making plays while split wide and outside the numbers.

Doing so means Smith-Schuster can be at his best while in the slot or out wide, but let’s look closer …

Having Antonio Browallowed Smith-Schuster to line up all over the field while Randy Fichtner drew formations that gave Ben Roethlisberger weapons that scared defenses in various ways. Brown’s ability to succeed outside the numbers meant defenses had to pay closer attention to him, while Smith-Schuster could be where he’s best — in the slot.

Fichtner preferred to put Smith-Schuster somewhere in the middle of the field where defenses had to assign slot cornerbacks, safeties and sometimes linebackers to cover him because Brown drew their top coverage men.

The numbers are clear, because over 68 percent of Smith-Schuster’s 2018 targets came either in the slot, in bunch formations or over the middle of the field.

Smith-Schuster was successful both inside the numbers and outside the numbers, but there was no doubt his strength was playing inside. The position affords receivers more room to maneuver and force defenders to guess, while lining up outside allows cornerbacks to try to pin receivers to the sideline.

It’s more difficult for a receiver to succeed outside. Here’s a perfect example when Smith-Schuster faced off against the Ravens’ Brandon Carr. Carr gets beat at the line, but Smith-Schuster’s route is tight enough to the sideline that Carr can close the passing window and swat the ball away:

That’s not to say Smith-Schuster isn’t good outside the numbers, because he had plenty of success. Here he is beating former All-Pro cornerback A.J. Bouye with a good double move to create just enough separation for Roethlisberger to throw the perfect jump ball on his back shoulder for a great catch:

Smith-Schuster had plenty of those moments, but Brown’s departure means he is the only receiver left on the roster that had success split out wide. James Washington could develop there, but he’s still growing and could be used in the slot more in 2019. Both Eli Rogers and Ryan Switzer are specifically slot specialists, which is why Moncrief was signed.

The best weapon for receivers on the outside is pure speed. Smith-Schuster is fast enough to create separation, but there’s a difference between his good football speed and pure burners. For example, Smith-Schuster’s 40 yard dash time at his combine was a 4.54 while Moncrief was a 4.40. Those 14 hundredths of a second become huge on deep balls.

Watch how he blows past Trumaine Johnson without even putting on a move. He releases to the outside and is gone:

It takes extra moves and strategic routes for Smith-Schuster to usually get open deep for his longer touchdowns, but all Moncrief needs is speed and he’s often got his man beat. That kind of speed keeps defenses aware and safeties farther back.

But the reason Moncrief isn’t the answer for the Steelers is because he lacks consistency. He often drops catchable passes and doesn’t attack the ball at its highest point with strong hands.

A perfect example of this was when Cody Kessler threw a nice ball on his back shoulder that Moncrief needed minimal adjustment to find. Moncrief fails to not only to come back to the ball, but he lets it get low to the ground and drops it:

This is consistent throughout Moncrief’s tape and he shows to be more of a one-trick-pony than Mike Wallace was in his time with the Steelers. Most times Moncrief was challenged by a cornerback, he wouldn’t be able to win combat catches or even lay out to get passes that weren’t within the catch radius of his arms.

Watch how Moncrief fails to bring in this ball over the middle. He runs a deep in route and the ball is thrown high, but a chop from behind forces a drop:

The cornerback that made that chop was Steven Nelson, the Steelers’ newly signed free agent cornerback. My breakdown of his film last week highlighted how his effort often wins out in situations, even when a receiver initially breaks open because of their athleticism. Moncrief is one of those athletic receivers Nelson can take advantage of because they struggle to win those battles.

Moncrief is closer to a 2.0 version of Justin Hunter. He’s definitely a better deep threat with raw speed and can make big plays, but he’s still not a reliable option outside the numbers. He’s a good third or fourth option for the roster, but the team has to add another receiver that can succeed there.

If not, one injury to Smith-Schuster would mean Moncrief would become the Steelers’ No. 2 receiver, or even No. 1 if Washington doesn’t improve soon.

That’s a dangerous position for the offense, so look for Colbert to address the receiver position with a pick in the top three rounds of the draft.

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$nowJoe CaliforniaMarinburghlnicklow111Chris Carter Recent comment authors
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Joe California
Joe California

I don’t understand how the Steelers should draft a WR because Washington may develop but he’s not there yet but a new rookie WR would be?

$now
$now

I like Washington and I’m an optimistic person, but until he proves it you just can’t be sure. Improving the odds with another option is the smart and prudent thing to do.

Marinburgh
Marinburgh

We will see how many of the A Brown bashers are happy with the ” trade” of Brown for Moncrief plus the two picks by mid-season? (Putting aside Moncrief’s salary since Brown was a salary cap wash.)

$now
$now

Oh, I can’t wait for you remind everyone how you knew that Antonio Brown was a better WR than Donte Moncrief. Only 6 more months!

lnicklow111
lnicklow111

Hakeem Butler, come on down

ImEasyEd
ImEasyEd

So Moncrief is basically Limas Sweed then?

Dale Lolley
Dale Lolley

Uh, no. Not even close.

Marinburgh
Marinburgh

You clearly don’t recall what a monumental bust Limas Sweed was. Track down video of the play where Sweed drops a perfect pass along the sideline near the end of a half & then fakes an injury so that the Steelers have to use their last time out, losing the opportunity to score.

zpenguins68
zpenguins68

Please God, Hakeem Butler

jjvesco99
jjvesco99

Well that was depressing….

Chris Thomas
Chris Thomas

Awesome Chris! Is there a first rounder you would be pleased with if they chose a wide receiver in the first?

dmburcic
dmburcic

What did Washington show that he’s a #2 last year. He looked closer to Sammie Coates than a #2 last year

Sudesh Prasad
Sudesh Prasad

Great stuff as always, Chris, albeit a little concerning. Colbert and Co. really need to kill it in this draft.

wwpeast
wwpeast

What does it take to get a competent free agent, all these players from the street have flawed games, or cost franchise coin, so many gaping holes behind starters at TE,RB,LB,CB, hope Coach T and company can coach’em up. and what K will show up?

Dale Lolley
Dale Lolley

If they were competent or complete players, they likely wouldn’t be free agents.

bblove83
bblove83

Good take. Who do you think would be best fit in draft for Steelers? I like Butler from ISU

sooveed
sooveed

I don’t think we are giving him enough credit. Sure he won’t make the tandem like it was with AB/Juju and I am all for gathering more talent and playmaking ability at the position but I think hell do better than most expect.

He was highly regarded coming into the league, and was slowed probably by a combination of Andrew Luck injury missing 2017 altogether and a big chunk of 2015 and his own injuries in 2016 and 2017 as well as Blake Bortles being Blake Bortles.

I expect 60-70 receptions, 800 yards and a handful of TDs if him and Ben both remain healthy. And thats enough to warrant some attention.

DiegoPittFan
DiegoPittFan

Chris, Good piece but depressing. Steelers have needs everywhere.

Coachdefense0
Coachdefense0

Nice, objective analysis, Chris. Offensively, Fichtner will need to have his plan well set to compensate for the missing parts in the offense in 2019. It’s going to be a challenge for him and Big Ben.

BGnagey
BGnagey

Chris is there any reason to have SOME faith James Washington can be this guy? It seems in our system a flourishing WR is rare as a rookie and his upside seems to be there. No sure thing but could he factor in as an answer to this if he takes off in yr 2?

LaurenChiTown
LaurenChiTown

This was a sobering read. I read some prior analysis that his mediocre catch rate was mainly due to the quality of quarterback play but I think this paints a more accurate picture of the receiver we’re getting.

Exeter Express
Exeter Express

Damn…I was in the middle of talking myself into Moncrief becoming a Pro Bowler (All He Needed Was An Opportunity!). Anyway, thanks Chris, as always, for your objective analysis.

JL
JL

Ben will make Moncrief more consistent. He’s done it with just about every WR he’s played with. It’s not a coincidence that Moncrief was a serious threat when luck was healthy. The Jags qb situation, and the colts when luck was out, are probably the worst in the league over the past few years.

The Justin Hunter comparison is painful, Chris!

Paul
Paul

Between Shazier, AB, and Bell, the Steelers lost truly great players–not great in the terms that are often thrown around today for decent players–and they replaced them with two pedestrian players (Moncreif, Barron) and a good player (Conner) who’s injury-prone.

Good luck with that.

rmweber94+
rmweber94+

Better draft a good wideout. Moncrief will be a disappoint

DLFord
DLFord

I don’t get why people are so high or so low on Moncrief. They needed a solid receiver and that’s what they got. Not an all pro, not a waste of time, just a “good” receiver. Freeing up JuJu will all fall on Fichtner’s shoulders drawing up plays to spread the ball around to everyone not named JuJu. Receiving balance is how this group will succeed. If he succeeds in that, this team could be better this year because the defense will have to be honest and watch all the receivers instead of everyone worrying about AB. Of course, drafting a stud receiver wouldn’t hurt either. 😉

BubbaBanjo
BubbaBanjo

As long as we have outlets when they double Juju it’s good. Hard to replace Ronald Ocean

Paddy
Paddy

Ju Ju can play all three, but they do need someone to replace Brown

AttyMike
AttyMike

True analysis. Refreshing!

HankPaycheck
HankPaycheck

Great break down, albeit a concerning realization.

Mr. Jim
Mr. Jim

The first one sure looked under thrown to me,

dan.sunseri
dan.sunseri

Who in this draft fits what you are looking for? Or I should say what the Steelers need?

jtauberg
jtauberg

Moncrief is a not the answer. Anyone that has seen him play in the past would know this. He is completely inconsistent and his play will be maddening to watch in a Steeler uniform. I find it laughable that so many people on this site have praised this signing. He’s ok as a third/fourth receiver, but that’s about it. Let’s hope James Washington takes a big step forward this year, because unless the Steelers hit gold in the draft, it’s going to be a long season for the passing game.

DJ
DJ

Kessler “threw a nice ball on his back shoulder.” Man, that looks like a dying quail on his front shoulder, Chris.

Ben should be able to get the maximum out of Moncrief, presuming he doesn’t throw one of his patented “intentional interceptions” — heh heh. Hell, we had enough of the unintentional variety last year.