Sometimes failure is all about the timing. Like how the Steelers were unable to win a Super Bowl in the mid 90's even though they had the best defenses in the NFL during that tenure, but they lacked a franchise QB capable of leading them to the promised land. Or how the offensively top heavy Steelers of the past decade; lead by the Killer B's, failed to field a equally championship caliber defense. When it comes to playing championship football, timing is everything.
I have written multiple articles over the past couple of years openly pining for the Steelers to somehow acquire a running back with superior speed. For years Steelers Nation watched as Le’Veon Bell regularly broke off 10 to 20 yard runs, but lacked the necessary speed to break away for long touchdown runs. With the obscene amount of offensive talent surrounding him during his peak seasons, there was plenty of open field and big plays to be had, but not the necessary speed to exploit the opportunities.
When James Conner took over as the Steelers bell-cow running back, he shared plenty of similarities to his predecessor, including the lack of breakaway speed. Not only has HC Mike Tomlin been resistant to utilizing a running back platoon system, but somehow the Steelers managed to fill their depth chart with players even slower than the starter. Finally, after I had honestly given up any hope that anything would change anytime soon, the Steelers finally drafted a running back with breakaway speed in the fourth round of the 2020 NFL Draft. His name was Anthony McFarland Jr. from Maryland.
Last season McFarland and the Steelers learned all about the importance of timing, the hard way. Although the Steelers finally had a runner with big play potential at their disposal, they lacked a offensive line capable of opening running lanes consistently; due mainly to injuries and Father Time, severely limiting their backs the opportunity to reach the open field. Even when McFarland had the opportunity to make an impact play, which were few and far between, he appeared to get so overly excited that he basically tripped over his own feet.
All running backs crave and covet enough touches early in a game to get in their comfort zone. Getting in the zone refers to a running back getting enough carries to work through any early game jitters; basically being overly stimulated mentally, to the point that the game slows down enough for the runner to read and react instinctively. The zone is a state of being that all athletes strive for in any athletic competition.
Needless to say, McFarland never received enough regular touches at any point in the season to find any semblance of his comfort zone. His mind appeared to be racing a thousand miles an hour and his physical appearance and performance reflected his mental state. To say he was antsy and anxious would be a understatement. There was no questioning his intensity nor his desire to make a big play for the offense, it showed in his frustration and disappointment.
The main contributor in McFarland's inability to make a impact in his limited amount of appearances was the Steelers offensive line being unable to create running lanes. However, there were other contributing factors at play. Without the benefit of being a part of a regular running back rotation, McFarland was viewed as a specialist of sorts only utilized to run a specific set of plays. This made his usage predictable and limited his effectiveness.
There could be some good news on the horizon. The Steelers running game finally hit rock bottom last season, finishing dead last in the NFL. The Steelers offensive line has grown old and ineffective, and the team is in the process of trying to rectify that particular problem. Maurkice Pouncey's retirement and multiple free agency losses guarantee there will be a complete overhaul along the offensive line, with RG David DeCastro being potential the only holdover.
The Steelers even prompted former assistant offensive line coach Adrian Klemm to the top spot to bring a new voice and aggressive mindset to the meeting room. Along with the change in philosophy and personnel along the offensive line, McFarland can expect a new face in the running back corps and some changes on the depth chart. That should make for an interesting and competitive training camp, and competition brings out the best in any true competitor. Keep the faith, young man. The best is yet to come.