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Film Room: Anthony McFarland is the Steelers new Weapon-X, Part 3: 2019 and beyond

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What happened to Anthony McFarland in 2019 and what to expect in 2020.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Anthony McFarland Jr. rushed for 520 yards in the last three games of 2018, then in 2019 he only rushed for 614 yards. While he had a high ankle sprain he also only missed one game, and clearly he didn’t live up to the hype that followed the Ohio State game in 2018.

This is going to have a lot of clips, so let’s jump right in and look at McFarland’s 2019 season and see what happened, and how his injury affected his play, starting at the beginning when he was healthy.

Anthony McFarland Jr. is the RB to the bottom of the screen.

McFarland was a nightmare for a LB to cover in man. He is going to be a mismatch for a lot of LBs in the NFL. You can also see this offense is more traditional, no wing backs in 2019.

Anthony McFarland Jr. is the RB.

This is as good as any run he made in 2018. Two jump cuts and two changes of direction. He doesn’t just jump to his right to start the run, he turns his hips and bursts outside, before jump cutting again, landing squared up to the goal line and with one downfield block he’s gone.

Anthony McFarland Jr. is the RB.

A nice little RB out route, and McFarland shows again that he’s that break a tackle and he’s gone type of RB.

Anthony McFarland Jr. is the RB.

McFarland avoids the penetration, then shows his lateral speed and creative running.

Anthony McFarland Jr. is the RB.

These cutback runs were deadly in 2018 and again in 2019. Everyone shows a run to the right, but he gets a lead blocker in the other RB, and the edge defender is too wide and McFarland goes inside to go outside for another big gain.

Anthony McFarland didn’t get a lot of touches in the season opening demolition of Howard, then put up 120 yards and 3TDs on 16 touches in a beat down of the then 21st ranked Orangemen. Maryland followed that with a close loss to Temple in which McFarland ran for 132 yards and 1 TD on 26 carries. McFarland injured his ankle in the Temple game, but the coaches said they realized he was hurt in the next game, against Penn State.

Anthony McFarland Jr. is the RB.

McFarland wouldn’t put up many yards against Penn State, but he did have this run, where he does a great job of working through traffic for 12 yards.

Anthony McFarland Jr. is the RB.

This is a good run, but you see McFarland get run down from behind, something that you didn’t see in 2018 or the early games of 2019.

Anthony McFarland Jr. is the RB.

This was a nice catch and run against Purdue, but this was it for his good pays in that game, and you can see it didn’t require any cuts. Outside of this catch and run, MdFarland gained 6 yards on 5 touches, and would miss the next game against Indiana.

Anthony McFarland Jr. is the RB.

Here McFarland makes a nice catch while running backwards and a fluid turn after the catch. I also like seeing him leak out of the pocket, something the scheme didn’t include in 2018.

Anthony McFarland Jr. is the slot receiver to the top of the screen.

He didn’t do this much at all, but it is good to see that he was prepared to run a route from the slot, even if it is a simple in route and his in cut is way too slow allowing the DB to come in and break up the pass. This shows he did get practice doing this, and that is good.

Anthony McFarland Jr. is the RB.

Watch how he slows down before the cut, he’s putting as little lateral pressure on his ankle as he can. Some of the scouting reports on him talked about how he’d struggle to slow down into his cuts, and they probably watched film of him after his injury.

The defense didn’t always give him time to slow down though.

Anthony McFarland Jr. is the RB.

Here he has to cut faster, and the ankle can’t do it.

Anthony McFarland Jr. is the RB.

And again, this was one of his best moves in 2018, run right at the penetrating edge, then jump cut up field past him. The second clip in this article is a great example, but after the Temple game he couldn’t do it. It stood out to me that they tried to do it against Nebraska, he must have been feeling better.

Anthony McFarland Jr. is the RB.

The jump cut isn’t strong there, but it still works, and you can see the speed is coming back, he wasn’t breaking runs like this most of the season, he would get caught or angled out of bounds. It is good to see him blow past the angles again.

Anthony McFarland Jr. is the RB.

I love this run, it combines his jump cuts with the vision and patience to move through traffic he flashed in the Penn State game (6th clip in the article). If you want to know what could cause Reggie Bush to say Anthony McFarland could be better than LeVeon Bell, this is the kind of run Bush was thinking of. And honestly, that’s some crazy upside, because he shows that kind of patient, vision based running that Bell was so good because of, but where Bell had more power, McFarland has breakaway speed.

To be clear, I don’t endorse that statement at all, but I can see the same things that would cause a person to think that.

It stands out like a giant neon sign that the two times he recorded more than 30 carries in a two game span he either struggled mightily afterwards or was injured. LeVeon Bell was one of the Elite RBs in league while averaging 19.8 carries a game over 62 games in 5 years. Anthony McFarland is not going to be that kind of RB.

Anthony McFarland Jr. ran for 255 yards on 60 carries in the 8 games (7 he played in) after his injury against Temple (4.25 yards per carry).

In the first three games (one a blowout he played sparingly in) and the season finale against Michigan State, Anthony McFarland ran for 359 yards on 54 carries (6.65 yards per carry).

Seven of his 9 TDs came in those 4 games as well.

This is the second draft in a row the Steelers have drafted a player who had lower numbers in their pre-draft season due to injury, then showed up at the end of the season in their last game.

In that Michigan State game Anthony McFarland also did something he hadn’t done at all in his college career, he returned a kickoff.

That’s a solid return, and was clearly meant to show NFL teams that he is capable of it. In 2018 Ty Johnson was the kick returner, and he was great at it and also looking to make it in the NFL. When Ty Johnson was out of the way McFarland was the #1 RB and the teams top offensive weapon, he wasn’t going to be the kick returner.

One thing I kept wanting to include was his pass blocking, but these posts have been really long so I kept cutting it. So here are three plays that show his strengths in pass blocking. Anthony McFarland is the RB in all 3.

Good job to step up and give the QB room, he is ready to help with the first blitzer, then easily reads and picks up the twist, absorbing the impact.

Here no one is there to help him, and while three defenders converge on his QB, McFarland takes the first one, and while he’s not going to stand him up, he is able to redirect the rush to the side to keep his QB clean and Maryland picks up a first down.

And that’s Anthony McFarland blocking Chase Young. I used this one because it is Chase Young, but one of his better attributes in blocking is carrying an edge around the arc.

McFarland shows intelligence in reading blitzes, and he can absorb a hit when he has time to get set, but he won’t hold that block for long. He can buy your QB a second, just don’t expect more than that.


Conclusion

McFarland is a dynamic runner when he’s got fresh legs and good blocking. He doesn’t need great holes, but when he gets a great hole, he can turn it into a big play.

McFarland also shows some receiving ability, experience as a wing back, and untapped potential as a kick returner.

This is why I call him the Steelers new weapon-X, because he is in position to be used in multiple ways, and the addition of Matt Canada to the staff, and the versatility on the roster makes me think he is going to get a chance to be that kind of player.

Kick returner, a change of pace runner who can come in and abuse a tired defense, but where he is really interesting to me is the potential for the Steelers to throw some wing back plays into the playbook.

Line him up at RB, then run him out to a wing back position, and he could be running a route, blocking or running. Which is the role Canada was starting to use him in early in 2017 before he jumped into the top of the RB rotation. It isn’t an every game type of strategy, but if you are facing a team with less disciplined DEs, or ones that are used to just rushing the QB (Chase Young comes to Pittsburgh week 13) could be vulnerable to some Jet sweeps, and a few of those gaining yards gives a whole new thing for defenses to prepare for. If he can play in the slot that works even better.

Imagine a trips alignment where McFarland is the inside WR (essentially an H-Back), you can run a jet sweep out of that. Or you put McFarland at RB, a tight end on one side and trips with Diontae Johnson as the inside WR and motion McFarland out to wing back outside the TE. You can jet sweep with McFarland or Diontae Johnson in that situation, threatening to run to either side out of empty. It just adds so much new threat to the field.

I’m not going to make any prediction for yards or TDs, because it may not be possible to implement too much this off-season. But after the excitement about what Eric Ebron and Derek Watt could bring to the offense, Anthony McFarland brings a whole new element, and opens up some interesting possibilities.