PITTSBURGH — The first two seasons of Anthony McFarland’s career have not gone to plan. Coming out of Maryland as a speed demon with big-play ability, McFarland’s first two years have been marred by injuries and a lack of opportunity.
The third-year veteran is now just looking to find his footing to prove he belongs in the main rotation. Coming off a season where he tore his MCL and then was unable to fully recover from that, McFarland’s goals for training camp and the preseason are obvious: to stay healthy and move forward.
“I just want to have the best preseason of my career and go into the regular season healthy,” McFarland said during the team’s spring practice sessions.
Those injuries have hurt McFarland from a mental and physical standpoint. It almost feels like Year 3 has to be it for him. With Matt Canada’s full offense implemented, McFarland feels this could be the year that he breaks out. It will all depend upon how much he has grown as a player with a full offseason to work on his craft. With no injuries to worry about up to this point, McFarland has been able to simply worry about football-related issues.
“I’m saying I’m going to break out just based on what I learned my rookie year,” McFarland said. “I’ve learned the game both on and off the field. I know what it takes to be a professional and I came into Year 2 trying to carve out a role. There are things that just didn’t end up how I wanted it to be before the season since I got hurt. I tore my MCL. Going into Year 3, being a professional, taking care of my body, I just want to leave no stone unturned. I’m trying to keep my body right. Coach T always says, ‘if you’re available, that’s always an upside.’ I’m going to do that and try to carve out a role on this team.”
Canada’s offense is the wrinkle here for McFarland. Canada was his college coach and knows how to use McFarland as well as anyone. In past training camp practices, McFarland has taken a front and center role in different roles meant to utilize his speed. If he stays healthy, McFarland knows that his role could be as the second running back on the field. He is not taking those past opportunities for granted with Canada now implementing his full offense.
“I really just have to stay healthy because I know what I can do to help the team,” McFarland said. “It’s a team game and I know what I’ve gotta do to carve out that role. I remember the game against Ohio State. That player is still here. I’m just trying to work to find that role.”
McFarland rushed 21 times for 298 yards against Ohio State in 2018, a game that put him on the map as an NFL prospect. But the injuries and lack of opportunities have slowed his development and prevented that player from coming out at the NFL level.
Steelers running backs coach Eddie Faulkner has talked about one of those traits he could work on: his vision. The speed of the game is different from college, and McFarland has felt that in recent seasons when on the field. With the injuries coupled with that as well, McFarland has to slow down and use his speed to his advantage. It is this year that McFarland believes he can put together everything that Faulkner has taught him in practice.
“This game has definitely slowed down,” McFarland said. “That’s the thing that has really surprised me. When I first came in, I was used to going fast and then learning the NFL, it’s paced. The guys on defense are moving fast, too, so you have to know how to slow it down. At running back, looking at it, I learned that. Even just watching, I saw that and got better. You can get better-seeing guys like Najee [Harris] to go to work. I think I’ve learned a lot about reading defenses, man.”
So McFarland is looking to spring forward if he possibly can this season. It is no slam dunk, but there is a void to potentially fill behind Harris. If McFarland can stay healthy and impress, he could be the one to take the carries behind Harris. The Steelers would appreciate that with his speed, as well. In order for that to happen, McFarland is simply telling himself one thing:
“I keep saying, this is going to be my year,” McFarland said. “I’m going to stay healthy and work. That’s all I can do.”