The Pittsburgh Steelers fulfilled plenty of diehard Steelers fans wish list during the 2020 NFL Draft, as I can personally attest because I was one of them. First the Steelers drafted Ben Roethlisberger the speedy receiver with length he has long coveted, not so secretively. After selecting another prototypical edge rusher to add to their already impressive arsenal in the third round, the Steelers set their sights on a precious commodity they have been missing since the playing days of Fast Willie Parker.
The need for speed, particularly at the running back position, is something I have been spotlighting in my articles for years. This off season alone I wrote multiple articles about the potential impact a running back with an extra gear could have on the Steelers offense, especially with Ben Roethlisberger back behind center. With all the talent at the skill positions presently for the Steelers, there should be ample opportunity to spread the field and create plenty of mismatches at every level, especially for a swift elusive running back in the open field.
I subliminally suggested in multiple articles trades for players that fit the description, players like Phillip Lindsay and Matt Breida, but the Steelers front office never seemed to get the memo. Not until that fateful second night of the 2020 NFL Draft rolled around. That was the night my prayer was finally answered, and I realized that the Steelers had been paying attention all along, when they selected Maryland RB Anthony McFarland Jr. with their first selection of the fourth round.
McFarland's big play reputation in college was well earned and much deserved. So was his tendency to accumulate a variety of nagging injuries. Many draft pundits were impressed with his breakaway speed and elusiveness, but were scared off by his diminutive dimensions, believing he lacked the girth necessary to be a feature back in the NFL. The Steelers already had a bell cow back in James Conner, and a powerful backup with intriguing potentially in Benny Snell Jr. They saw great value in McFarland as a change of pace back with the exact skill set they have been missing.
McFarland made some noise during training camp practices, but meaningful information was few and far between. It seemed like he was a good bet to make the final roster, but it was really anybody's guess till the roster was announced. I was excited when he showed up on the depth chart, with images of long touchdown runs dancing in my head. Then he popped up on the inactive list for the season opener against the New York Giants on Monday Night Football.
After dressing but not seeing the field for Week 2 against the Denver Broncos, McFarland made his on the field debut against the Houston Texans Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh. His electric skill set was as good as advertised. His short area burst and acceleration was evident right off the bat. On one long run, McFarland took a step to the right, planted his lead leg, and exploded back through a open hole on the backside for a twenty yard gain. Later in the game, he took the handoff and simply out ran the defenders around left end for a eleven yard gain. It's been awhile since the Steelers have had a running back with that type of pure speed.
You only get one chance to make a first impression, and McFarland made the most of his. He obviously made a positive impression on Steelers standout David DeCastro.
"Anthony McFarland, he's a great young back", DeCastro said of the rookie when speaking to the media on Monday. “Talented. I like the way that he moves in space, his cutting ability, and he’s just very, very fluid. He’s young, too, which is great at that position”.
Now the cat is out of the bag, so to speak. You can bet that upcoming opponents have taken notice of McFarland's skill set, and will game plan accordingly. Sometimes the threat of speed is as impactful as the ability itself. Fear can cause defenders to hesitate the split second necessary to complete a game changing play, and gives opposing defensive coordinators one more thing to lose sleep over.
McFarland brings the speed factor that the Steelers backfield has long been missing. Now it's up to OC Randy Fichtner and the rest of the Steelers coaching staff to creatively design plays each game to maximize that ability to it's fullest potential.
Just get the young man the football in open space, and he will do the rest. Give him the opportunity, and he will run with it.