Updated: May 31, 2020
In the dictionary, the word "speed" is defined as "the rate at which someone or something moves or operates or is able to move or operate".
Speed can be qualified and quantified in various ways. For instance, at the NFL Combine, scouts use the time as a means of measuring a person's speed. Then there is the difference between "combine" speed and game speed. For some, their combine speed and game speed are a perfect match; for others, their speed is better represented in either one of the noted situations.
Pittsburgh Steelers rookie running back Anthony McFarland is one of the few whose combine and game speed is virtually identical. What opposing defenses realized when playing against him, in open space, he has the type of speed that could potentially allow him to score at will; ask Ohio State.
As a 4-star recruit out of DeMatha Catholic High School, McFarland was redshirted in his freshman year. The following year, McFarland exploded onto the national scene with his performances. The game that defined him took place in week 11 against the #10 ranked Ohio State Buckeyes. In that game, he registered the second most rushing yards in a single game with 298 yards on 21 carries and two touchdowns. He ended that season 1,034 rushing yards, breaking Maryland's freshman rushing record. For his efforts, he earned second-team All-Big Ten honors. In his sophomore year, injuries derailed him from duplicating the success he had the previous year. He would end with a modest 614 rushing yards on 114 carries.
Even with the small sample size, it does not take much to analysis to conclude that McFarland possesses game-breaking speed. He is the type of running back if given a few inches of daylight, can change the course of a game.
Finding The Edge
Though he is capable of doing so, McFarland is not the most effective in-between-the-tackles runner. McFarland's true strength is finding the edge, where he can utilize his speed, and break away from opposing defenders on the outside. During his time with Maryland, he demonstrated the ability to score on almost every sequence when he finds the edge.
In this sequence against Rutgers, McFarland is seen positioned on the right side of the Maryland quarterback. When the ball is snapped, Maryland executes a counter, as suggested by the pulling right guard who perfectly seals the oncoming weakside linebacker. McFarland starts his course towards the edge on the left side and finds open space on the outside. Not only does he outrun the nearest linebacker to him, he outruns the entire Rutgers secondary on route to the end zone.
An aspect of McFarland's overall game that does get enough attention is his vision. Whether he is trying to find the edge or running in between the tackles, McFarland has demonstrated a keen eye for finding small gaps within a defense and accelerating through them. What makes this even more impressive, is his ability to find these openings without breaking stride.
In this red zone sequence against Syracuse, McFarland is seen on the left side of the Maryland quarterback. When the ball is snapped, begins his course towards the edge. McFarland is quick to note that the Syracuse defensive lineman had beaten the Maryland tackle inside; meanwhile, the Syracuse inside linebacker was also coming towards him. McFarland is able to run past the Syracuse lineman and cut inside the B gap, before the Syracuse linebacker had the chance to even touch him. This sequence happens very quickly, as McFarland in noted having an excellent sidestep. Once he found the open seam, he accelerates into the end zone for the touchdown.
Underrated Route Runner
During his time in Maryland, McFarland was not used often as a receiver. Instances where he was used as a receiver, McFarland not only demonstrated his natural ability to make catches, he also showed that he can run various routes.
In this sequence, we see McFarland positioned to the left of the Maryland quarterback. Generally, when a running back is positioned this matter, it either indicates that he will play the role of a blocker or an extra receiver. When the ball snapped, McFarland wheels out from the backfield and executes a smooth curl route. As the reception is made, he has the presence of mind to anticipate the Syracuse defender coming downhill on the right side. He maintains his balance and curls the opposite way, while shrugging off his tackle attempt. McFarland proceeds to outrun three additional defenders, then find open space outside for additional yards.
The unpredictable nature of McFarland's running style is part of what makes him intriguing, and dangerous to opposing defenses. As it stands, McFarland is arguably the fastest running back on the roster, with his only competition in that realm being undrafted running back Kerrith Whyte Jr. Considering the Steelers ground attack was on the lower end of the spectrum in practically every rushing category, the infusion of an explosive an versatile running back like McFarland, is exactly what this offense needed for greater gains this upcoming season.