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 Brown allowed 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.