Steelers Running Backs Coach Eddie Faulkner discussed multiple running backs presently on the Steelers’ roster during a virtual interview with the press this week, but failed to mention rookie Anthony McFarland directly, as far as I know. Once the pads start popping at practice this upcoming week, McFarland needs to utilize his impressive playing speed to create excitement throughout the offense and potentially become the talk of training camp.
Big-time players make big-time plays that garner attention and are impossible to ignore. The fans won't remember every mundane moments from a game, whether it be in victory or defeat, but you better believe they will remember the splash plays.
The highlight reel slam dunk in basketball always gets the crowd on their feet and out of their seats. Chicks dig the long ball has rang true in baseball since all the way back to the days of the Sultan of Swat himself, Babe Ruth. Watching a running back burst through the line and turn on the afterburners resulting in a long touchdown run is the equivalent on a football field.
McFarland arrives in the Steel City with a well earned reputation for splash plays. Blessed with superior speed and quickness, McFarland has the smaller stature of a scatback. His elusiveness makes him a matchup nightmare in the open field. These qualities have created numerous shock and awe moments thus far in his varsity and collegiate career. If McFarland is going to continue to create these splash plays at the NFL level, then it will be up to the Steelers coaches to game plan accordingly to put him in the best positions to succeed.
The Steelers would be wise to learn a thing or two about how the Chicago Bears have successfully utilized their diminutive scatback Tarik Cohen, a player with a similar skill set and stature to McFarland.
A fourth round selection out of North Carolina A&T in the 2017 NFL Draft, Cohen almost instantly made his presence known on the field. He was the talk of camp and carried that momentum into the regular season. Comparisons with diminutive dynamo Darren Sproles were instantaneous and inevitably. Like Sproles, Cohen could impact the game in a variety of ways, and create a constant headache for defensive coordinators.
Whether it was in the running game, passing game, or returning kicks, Cohen seemed to be making splash plays every week. One game in particular should come to mind for any Steelers fan, the week he terrorized the Steelers in all three facets throughout the Bears upset victory at Soldier Field. That was one of the highlight reel games for Cohen during his impressive rookie season. I vividly remember thinking how I sure wished the Steelers had a weapon like that at their disposal.
Now they just might have found their own explosive scatback in McFarland. Like Cohen, McFarland is better served at this point in his fledgling career as a change of pace platoon back. McFarland is slightly taller than Cohen, and has a noticeably thicker frame. He may eventually put on the necessary girth to be a lead back, but that will take time and be later on down the road. For now, McFarland is a specialist, a weapon to be unleashed on the opposition in a very specific manner.
That is where Steelers Offensive Coordinator Randy Fichtner, and to a lesser degree Matt Canada, enter into the equation. They have to find ways to get the football into McFarland's hands in the open field, where he can allow his instincts and talents to take over. Without preseason games, in which rookies like McFarland can get their feet wet, so to speak, the Steelers coaches have to help these youngsters figure out what has always come naturally to so many of them, playing football.
Like Forrest Gump returning kicks for his beloved Alabama Crimson Tide, just hand him the ball and point him in the right direction. Thankfully that is true for the running back position more than any position in football. That's why so many rookie running backs have enjoyed almost instant success, players like Cohen.
It is imperative the Steelers properly evaluate McFarland and utilize him accordingly. This is where the Steelers could learn another lesson from the Chicago Bears. How not to use your talented, young scatback.
After the aforementioned rookie season, Cohen was even better in his sophomore season. So good actually he made both the NFC Pro Bowl and All Pro teams in 2018. Then the Bears moved the goalposts on Cohen. After that season, the Bears traded Cohen's platoon partner Jordan Howard to the Philadelphia Eagles. Without his partner in crime around to do the heavy lifting, Cohen's responsibilities changed and he struggled throughout last season to adjust to the added attention from opposing defenses. Cohen is a popular candidate for a bounce back season this year.
Whether McFarland has the ability to be a lead back some day in the NFL remains to be seen, but he certainly has the skill set to be a weaponized specialist if utilized correctly. Now it is up to the Steelers’ coaching staff, and the young man himself, to get the most out of his impressive abilities.
Who knows, Steelers Nation may just be looking at the next Redman Award winner.