The offseason trade made by the Pittsburgh Steelers that included them dealing wide receiver Antonio Brown to the Oakland Raiders in exchange for two draft picks was quickly followed up by the team signing veteran free agent Donte Moncrief and drafting wide receiver Diontae Johnson. With those two new players in the fold, the Steelers are hoping that some sort of combination of them both will help significantly replace the stats that Brown had averaged over the course of the last six seasons, which equates to 114 receptions for 1,524 yards and 11 touchdowns. Additionally, the Steelers will need to hope that a combination of Moncrief and Johnson at the X receiver position can produce a healthy amount of deep receptions 20 or more yards down the field.
For all of the great things that Brown did during his career in Pittsburgh, his ability to make catches deep down the field is probably something that’s not talked about enough. In fact, just last season, Brown caught 12 passes from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger that were thrown 20 or more yards past the line of scrimmage for 450 yards and 8 touchdowns. In total, Roethlisberger attempted 18 such deep passes to Brown last season. 9 of those 12 completions also came from Week 8 and on as Roethlisberger wasn’t overly accurate with his ultra-deep passes during the first half of the season. In case you’re curious, Roethlisberger ended the 2018 season 24-of-77 for 999 yards with 11 touchdowns and 3 interceptions on his passes of 20 yards or more down the field.
In 2017, Brown registered 14 ultra-deep receptions for 450 yards and 2 touchdowns and Roethlisberger ended that season 24-of-82 for 885 yards with 4 touchdowns and 4 interceptions on throws of 20 yards or more down the field.
While Steelers third-year wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster should see his deep pass receptions increase some in 2019 with Brown now gone, the Steelers will need Moncrief, Johnson and second-year wide receiver James Washington to help fill the rest of the ultra-deep reception void created by the offseason the loss of Brown. Last season, Washington, who made a college career out of catching ultra-deep passes at Oklahoma State, only had 2 such receptions during his 2018 rookie season. By the way, both of those ultra-deep pass receptions came in two of the Steelers last three games, so at least he finished on a positive trend. Can Washington at least register 6 ultra-deep pass receptions in his second season? He needs to and if he can hit double-digits, even better.
Now, back to Moncrief and Johnson. Last season with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Moncrief registered just 5 ultra-deep pass receptions for 225 yards and 2 touchdowns on 19 total targets. It’s worth noting, however, that 3 of those failed ultra-deep pass completions can probably be scored as drops. In Moncrief’s defense, he didn’t play with great quarterbacks last season in Jacksonville. In fact, quarterbacks Blake Bortles and Cody Kessler combine to complete 15 of 46 pass attempts that flew 20 or more yards past the line of scrimmage. In the two previous seasons that Moncrief spent with the Indianapolis Colts, he caught 6 of 20 ultra-deep pass attempts for 239 yards and 2 touchdowns.
While I don’t have his stats compiled, Johnson did register quite a few ultra-deep pass receptions during his college career at Toledo. For what it’s worth, he registered 25 total receiving plays that gained 25 yards or more during his college career. Obviously, not all of those came via receptions more than 20 yards past the original line of scrimmage, but there were several of those included in that total number. Can he now produce those at the NFL level?
Obviously, ultra-deep pass receptions aren’t the end all, do all in the NFL. After all, last year’s Super Bowl champion, the New England Patriots, only registered 18 total such catches during the 2018 regular season and quarterback Tom Brady finished 18-of-56 on such attempts. However, it’s worth noting that the Patriots offense wasn’t faced with as many long field as the Steelers offense faced last season.
Roethlisberger has built an NFL career off of registering huge down-the-field pass plays due to his ability to extend plays. While Moncrief and Johnson aren’t soon to be confused with Brown, perhaps the two can combine to come close to equaling Brown’s 12 ultra-deep pass receptions from last season as a result of them both now playing with a quarterback that can extend plays like none other. We’ll start finding out for sure beginning in early September against the Patriots.