Anthony McFarland out to make a name for self in battle to be Steelers’ top backup RB

During organized team activities last month, the painted nameplate affixed to the top of Anthony McFarland Jr.’s space in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ locker room at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex read “26 McCFARLAND.”

Entering his third season with the team and having first set foot in that facility more than 25 months prior, the spelling error presumably went unnoticed by team personnel that entire time.

A sign that the former fourth-round pick has fallen into roster anonymity? A metaphor for how overlooked McFarland has become on the Steelers’ running back depth chart?

In actuality, it was just a simple error by equipment staff that was rectified after it was brought to their attention by a media member. And for McFarland’s part, he noticed the spelling gaffe when first shown his locker more than two years ago — but at that point, as a rookie just giddy to be in the NFL, he wasn’t going to say anything.

“It’s all good,” McFarland said, laughing about it, in retrospect. “All good. I don’t care.”

But what McFarland does care about is proving himself a viable NFL running back, one who can carve out a niche as a primary backup to Najee Harris.

After an uninspiring rookie season that was followed by an injury-riddled Year 2, McFarland is out to show he can be a speedy playmaker when he enters his third training camp with the Steelers next month.

“I feel like that’s what it’s all about, just finding a role,” McFarland said. “I’ve been thinking about how I can add to my versatility, just all around making plays. That’s what my mindset is: How can I show my versatility in different ways to have a role?”

The Steelers are open to limiting the workload put on Harris in 2022. But part of their reliance on Harris was that none of their other running backs did anything to distinguish themselves in 2021.

Benny Snell Jr., Kalen Ballage and McFarland combined for 137 rushing yards on 51 carries, a paltry 2.7 average. Counting targeted throws, the 63 times the Steelers handed or threw the ball to a backup running back last season netted 172 yards and no touchdowns.

McFarland generated only three carries for 3 yards and one catch for 11 yards among the 19 offensive snaps played in the two games he was in uniform.

That output was a major disappointment for a player expected to carry out what is one of coach Mike Tomlin’s favorite credos: The leap from Year 1 to Year 2 is the biggest an NFL player makes. McFarland showed all the signs it would play out that way during last year’s training camp.

He displayed the burst and speed that made him a big-play threat in college at Maryland. His preseason peaked when he had a touchdown among 10 touches in 21 snaps during a win at the Philadelphia Eagles.

Less than two weeks later, though, McFarland underwent surgery for a torn knee MCL. He began the season on injured reserve and even after activation for Week 8 would spend most of the rest of the season as a gameday inactive or on the covid-19 list.

“It was tough,” McFarland said, “not even just (letting down) everybody, but myself, I was just trying to be tunnel-vision. I had so much momentum in myself, staying focused and taking care of my body. I put in a lot of work in to see more to where I wanted to be in training camp. So it kind of (stunk) when I found out I had to get surgery.

“It hurt, but injuries happen and I lived and I learned from that. I have to treat my body better and be even hungrier than I was.”

Though the Steelers did not add a veteran or draft pick at the position, the competition to be Harris’ backup is wide open with McFarland battling Snell and intriguing undrafted rookies Jaylen Warren and Mataeo Durant.

McFarland said he’s healthy — “100% ready to go” — and pledges he’s made himself a better pass-protector. That is a crucial skill for a back trying to earn a third-down role or contribute in the passing game.

Now that his nameplate above his locker is correctly spelled, McFarland vows to make a name for himself in the Steelers’ offense.

“I’ve had a lot of setbacks, but I’ve learned a lot,” McFarland said. “Coming into Year 3, I’m feeling more comfortable and understanding what it is that I want my role to be to help the team out.

“I know there is a lot of doubt in my game. That’s what happens when you haven’t stepped on the field and showed much. But that’s what makes me hungry.”

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Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris by email at cadamski@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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