Steelers’ Head Coach Mike Tomlin’s connection to the University of Maryland football program may be paying off in a big way. Tomlin’s son, Dino, is a sophomore wide receiver at Maryland. Therefore, Mike Tomlin has a close connection with Maryland football and he clearly saw something in running back Anthony McFarland Jr.
Going into the 2020 NFL Draft questions arose about his ability to make the leap from college football to the NFL. McFarland, who stands at 5’8″, was considered too small by some. He wouldn’t, however, be the first small running back to make an impact in the NFL.
He also has one important intangible in his favor, speed. McFarland is not just fast he is quick. That may seem like the same thing, but there is a distinct difference. Many athletes are fast. If they get away it’s over and good luck catching them. Fewer athletes have quickness. Being quick is the ability to make quick cuts in the open field. To get away from defenders in small places and make decisions in real-time on where the run the ball.
Anthony McFarland has both of these traits. He can make linebackers and safeties miss in the open field and once he does it’s all over, good luck catching him.
So, in just his fourth game in the NFL, what does McFarland bring to the table?
First, he gives the Steelers a great change-of-pace. Neither James Conner nor Benny Snell are known for their straight-line speed. That’s not to say they are slow, but they don’t have the top gear that McFarland possesses.
McFarland also brings an ability to hit the edge. Against the Texans in week 3, McFarland was able to stretch the defense and get to the sideline. This gives the Steelers a whole new dimension to their offense and one that defenses have to respect whenever he is on the field.
On just six carries against Houston, McFarland gained 42 yards including a 20-yard run.
That stat line, along with Coach Tomlin expressing his desire to see more of McFarland in the offense, makes me think he will continue to get a shot to show what he can do.
Another reason to expect McFarland, and Benny Snell, to get plenty of opportunities is the Steelers salary cap situation. The Steelers are going to have a tough time fitting contracts under the cap this off-season and James Conner is set to be a free agent. Don’t be surprised if McFarland and Snell are the running back duo in 2021.