When I saw the news last Thursday that the Steelers had signed free agent wide receiver Donte Moncrief, I had a flashback.
In December of 2013, my wife and I went to Nashville to attend the wedding of my cousin, who was getting married there on New Year’s Eve. He’s a musician in the Nashville scene and we had always promised we’d visit. We went down a couple of days early so we could do the Nashville thing - barbeque, live music, the Jack Daniels distillery. Not necessarily in that order.
At some point after our arrival I found out the Music City Bowl was in town. Suddenly, the plan changed. There are 1,000 things to do in Nashville that do not involve attending a mid-level bowl game between two mediocre schools. But I love college football and I’d never been to a bowl game before. So...
My wife wasn’t having it. A “spirited” conversation ensued. The tide turned when I promised to take her to a play in New York City when we got back home. I made it to Titans stadium, bought a cheap ticket and ended up catching what turned out to be a pretty entertaining game between Ole Miss and Georgia Tech. The Rebels won, 25-17, and the guy who really flashed for them was a receiver named Donte Moncrief.
I had never heard of Moncrief but he quickly caught my attention. He finished the game with over 100 yards receiving and a touchdown but it was his speed and physicality that really stood out. Watching live, you could see how explosive he was off the ball. And boy, could he block. He mixed it up with a number of Georgia Tech defenders and looked more than willing to block linebackers. I remember thinking I wouldn’t mind seeing him in a Steelers uniform one day. Then I hit the bars in Nashville and the rest of that trip is a blur. After that I pretty much forgot Moncrief existed.
Until last Thursday. Now that Moncrief is a Steeler, I’m excited about him all over again. His professional career has been a mixed bag of success and disappointment. But as many have noted, his production has been hindered by roadblocks. After a promising rookie year in Indianapolis, injuries, both to Andrew Luck and his own, limited him the next three seasons. Moncrief signed a one-year deal with the Jaguars in 2018, where he caught passes from Blake Bortles and Cody Kessler. Moncrief’s 48 receptions on 89 targets, which equates to a lackluster 53.9% catch rate, speaks to the quality of the quarterback play in Jacksonville.
In Pittsburgh, Moncrief will play in the most sophisticated passing offense of his career. He will play opposite the best receiver of his career in Juju Smith-Schuster while catching passes from the best quarterback of his career in Ben Roethlisberger. The conditions are ripe for a big season from the talented 26 year-old. Let’s break down Moncrief’s game and look at how he might be used in the Steeler offense.
WHAT DOES MONCRIEF DO WELL?
1. Create Separation on Vertical Routes
Watching film, you see Moncrief do a nice job separating from defenders on deep routes versus both man and zone schemes. At 6’2, he is tall and long enough to escape press coverage and his 4.4 speed allows him to eat cushion as well. He is especially good running the vertical route versus cover-2, which is a staple of the Steelers offense.
Here he is on that very concept as a member of the Colts against the Steelers:
I can hear the naysayers already. “That’s Moncrief beating Cortez Allen and past-his-prime Troy Polamalu. Not impressed!” Focus on what Moncrief does well, though.
First, he aligns properly, giving himself enough room between the numbers and the sideline to allow quarterback Andrew Luck to throw him away from the coverage. This is a small thing but one where you see a lot of receivers make a key mistake. They align too wide and allow themselves to get ridden into the boundary by the corner, making the throw impossible to complete. Moncrief does neither here.
Next, he wins the battle of the hands, getting Allen’s off of him and then creating space at the last moment with a subtle push-off. Finally, he goes up for the football, secures it and takes a shot from Polamalu. It’s a nice catch for the touchdown. But it’s set up by his alignment, his speed, his spacing and his ball awareness, all of which give him the separation he needs to be successful.
In the next GIF we see Moncrief run right by Jets corner Trumaine Johnson. Johnson, like Allen above, has his hands slapped away by Moncrief, allowing the receiver to separate. A recurring theme while watching Moncrief’s tape is that he is a physical football player. He fights for separation and to get position on the football. Defenders who are not physical in return will suffer for it.
So, Moncrief can separate from slower corners with his speed, smaller corners with his size and less physical corners with his aggressiveness. This bodes well for him in one-on-one matchups, another staple of the Steelers passing game.
2. Catch the Ball in Traffic
The first GIF shows Moncrief catching the ball between two defenders. The one below shows him doing a great job high-pointing it.
Here we see Moncrief at the bottom of the screen running a Sluggo route, which is short for Slant-and-Go. It’s not a great route - Moncrief never really sells the slant, and you can tell the corner doesn’t buy the fake because he never opens his hips to the inside as he would if a slant were actually coming. The finish, however, is excellent. The corner maintains good position, attached to Moncrief’s inside hip, but Moncrief is able to use his length to go up and get the football (the corner, by the way, is Perrish Cox, who is listed at 6’0, so he’s not exactly small).
When you watch film on Moncrief, you see several examples of these types of catches where he gets good position at the point of attack before elevating.
Here’s another one, this one against New England. The alignment gives Luck room to throw Moncrief open and Moncrief does a great job opening his hips and getting his hands to the ball. His body control and ability to use his length to separate in tight spaces is excellent.
Here’s one more:
Again, Moncrief separates with his speed and then goes up and gets the football before the defender can. Given all of the isolation throws Ben Roethlisberger likes to use, this could make Moncrief a great fit for our offense. He should be a legitimate deep and red zone threat because of these attributes.
WHERE DOES MONCRIEF STRUGGLE?
The biggest flaw I can see in his game is that he’s just an average route-runner. Specifically, he’s a little stiff. The Sluggo shown above is evident of how he doesn’t really have what some call “quick twitch” movement, which is fancy football talk for guys with good burst who can change direction on a dime. At 6’2-215 pounds, Moncrief is more fast than quick and more powerful than elusive. However, with receivers like Eli Rogers and Ryan Switzer on the roster, Moncrief shouldn’t be asked to play in the slot very much, where quickness matters more than speed. This should minimize some of his route-running issues.
Even on the outside, though, his ability to throttle down, cut and move horizontally is mediocre. He is best when running vertical and his 4.4 speed helps to create a pre-snap cushion from DBs who don’t want to get run by. This allows for some separation on the shorter routes where Moncrief doesn’t separate naturally. His size, length and ability to get his hands to the ball help on these routes, too.
My other concern, although I will stop short of calling it a weakness because I don’t know for sure what caused it, is his catch percentage the past two seasons. Granted, he was catching from the Brissett/Bortles/Kessler pu-pu platter. But 53 and 55% are bad, and some of that must have fallen on Moncrief. His percentages were 60 and 65% the two seasons he played in Indy where both he and Luck were healthy. That’s better, although the 60% mark is still mediocre. A low catch percentage provokes certain questions. How many balls does Moncrief drop? How much does his mediocre route running inhibit his ability to get open in the intermediate passing game? How often are he and the quarterback not on the same page? This bears watching.
HOW MIGHT THE STEELERS USE HIM?
1. On the back side of Trips formations.
This is something we used to do often with Antonio Brown. Teams like to put their best receiver on the back side of Trips because it forces defenses to pick their poison. They either must single-up on that receiver, which is a gamble, or help on him, which weakens their ability to defend the Trips side.
Moncrief is not AB but his ability to go vertical and catch those types of throws make it risky to solo him. The Steelers can put Juju on the backside of Trips as well, but Juju is a more complete receiver than Moncrief and is better working the myriad of routes that can be run to the Trips side. A threat like Moncrief away from Trips will likely induce a lot of cover-2 from opposing DC’s so they have some help over the top. This in turn should open up opportunities for Juju, Rogers/Switzer, McDonald, etc on the other side of the field.
Here is a Trips look versus cover-2 with Moncrief on the backside. Look at the matchup advantage the Steelers have to the strength on a simple Stick concept and the route possibilities for Moncrief against the cover-2 combo. Give Big Ben options like this and he will make good things happen.
2. Matched up against smaller corners.
With the 6’2 Moncrief and the 6’1 Smith-Schuster split wide, both of whom are good with body positioning, are physical players and can go up and get the football, the Steelers now have the ability to isolate and work on smaller corners in a way they couldn’t do even with AB. Roethlisberger is good throwing the fade ball, the back-shoulder fade and the deep out, all of which favor bigger receivers. I would expect to see a good amount of these concepts when the Steelers can get one of their big wideouts isolated on a smaller defender.
The Browns, for example, who are the new media darlings of the AFC North, feature a pair of 5’11 starting corners in Denzel Ward and Terrance Mitchell. Each would likely struggle with the size and physicality of Juju and Moncrief. If the Browns want to put one of those players in the slot and substitute a bigger corner, like Robert Jackson, outside, the smaller corner will now have to play the run. These are all favorable matchups for the Steelers.
This is one of the biggest reasons I am excited about the Moncrief signing. It gives us the advantages on the outside we had with Martavis Bryant. Moncrief is not quite the physical specimen Bryant was. But he doesn’t possess the personal baggage either. I’ll take that trade-off any day.
3. Paired with Juju in Twins formations.
Then there is this:
With Moncrief and Juju stacked in a Twins formation, you have a 6’1 and 6’2 receiver who are both vertical threats with the ability to get one of them matched up on a safety or linebacker underneath. This is also a great look for three and four vertical concepts, upon which the Steelers thrive.
For teams who play man and want their corner on Juju, putting Moncrief on the ball in the slot allows you to motion Juju inside and gives Moncrief plenty of open field to operate against a safety. I have no idea if this is a formation or a concept the Steelers might actually use. But it gives you an idea how the Steelers might seek matchup advantages with Smith-Schuster and Moncrief on the field together.
Moncrief is not a complete receiver. He has visible flaws and there are other intangibles - his film study, how coachable he is, whether he struggles to digest a playbook - that we just don’t know about. This is his third team in six years. For that fact alone we should temper our enthusiasm a bit.
But the Moncrief who impressed me when I saw him in person back in 2013 and the Moncrief I saw on film researching this piece look very similar. He is big, he is fast, he uses his hands well and he can jump. Most importantly, he has a distinct skill set - the ability to get vertical - that this offense needs now that AB is gone.
In the pro game, the talent disparities between teams are not nearly as great as they are in college. There are no Alabama vs. The Citadel encounters in the NFL. As a result, pro football games are often won by the teams who can create and exploit favorable matchups. Moncrief gives us the potential to do this. That alone is enough to make me optimistic.