When rookies are asked about the difference between college and pro football the common answer is usually the speed of the game. Everything at the NFL level moves faster and it takes time to adapt. A player will often try to compensate by speeding up their physical movements but the real change needs to happen mentally. Once their mind gets moving at the NFL level the player can just react rather than having to think and everything starts to click.
For Anthony McFarland that moment has yet to come and this strange season has put him at a disadvantage. He didn’t get the experience of a normal preseason to help him acclimate to the NFL level so he is still playing catch up. I looked at my notes from last year and in my opinion it took Devin Bush until game five against the Ravens to really look comfortable and he had a full preseason and 260 regular season snaps before that game. McFarland only has 44 snaps this season so he may still have a ways to go.
McFarland got his first touches in week three and came out of the gates fast. His first three carries gained 38 yards. Since then he has 17 carries for 29 yards and yes the blocking hasn’t been great but he needs to do his part to help the offensive line as well.
The same running play can be blocked several different ways based on how the defense is aligned. Before the snap a running back must be able to read the defense, know how the play is supposed to blocked, be able to anticipate where the defenders should be as well as where his blocks are coming from and be able to use that information in making split second decisions within the play. Physical traits are a big part of it but the mental processing is just as, if not more, important.
After the snap the running back must take the hand off with his eyes up trusting the quarterback will put the ball in the right place so he can quickly analyze the first level blocks by the offensive lineman, identify the most likely gap opening while using his eyes and body to attempt to move second level defenders out of the gap he wishes to go. Sometimes they need to drive through the smoke trusting the blocking and accelerating to the hole just as it opens.
Behind the line of scrimmage the running back should be moving at about 75% speed so they have some acceleration available to burst into the hole and once on the second level must know where to expect the additional blocks will come from. At times McFarland is at full speed immediately after he receives the hand off.
I went back to look at all of his carries this year to see both the good and the areas where we can look for improvement from McFarland.
Let’s start with his first carry of the year the result of which was a seven yard gain on an inside Zone run. This play is blocked to go to the offensive right with the option for the running back to cut back to his left. The right guard and right tackle are going to kick out there blocks. Maurkice Pouncey’s (53) role is to combo block with the RG (not needed here) and then climb to the second level (LB 55). Matt Feiler (71) will control the 1 tech (DL 92) with Alejandro Villanueva (78) climbing to the second level to LB 57.
Derek Watt (44) will slide block across the formation to block is brother J.J. Watt (99) and Ray-Ray McCloud (14) is in orbit motion. These two movements get the linebackers to flow to their right.
McFarland looks quick to his right but gives up on that right away moving his eyes left to LB 57 and chooses the cut back lane. If he stays with the gap to the right it is blocked very well and he gets a block from Chase Claypool (11) on LB 41 to open up a big gap where he would be one on one with the DB at the third level.
Overall, it was a good gain of seven but could have better if he read the play more effectively.
Later in the season they ran essentially the same play and again he chose the cutback lane but this time it was the right decision. He starts with really good pace and patience behind the line of scrimmage and this time he keeps his eyes to the right to read the A gap between J.C.Hassenauer (60) and Kevin Dotson (69). A safety (29) fills that gap so cutting back to the left is the correct decision. There was a hold called on this play but that isn’t the concern here when talking about McFarland’s decision.
These next two are also similar plays. The play is designed to go into the left side A gap between Pouncey and Feiler with DeCastro chipping to his right before cutting to the play side linebacker and kicking him outside to create the running lane.
Against Philadelphia, Feiler will position to the inside and turn out the blitzing linebacker (50). Pouncey whiffs on his block but DL 93 takes himself out of the play. DeCastro gets to the second level and will push LB 47 out of the way. McFarland has to know that block from DeCastro is coming and cut off of it to his right. He gains 4 yards but if he cuts right he would have only the safety to beat.
Against Jacksonville, same play design this time using Eric Ebron (85) to come across the formation to hold LB 44. Feiler and Pouncey have their blocks under control. If McFarland pushes a little more left and then cuts off Feiler’s backside he will again get that kick out block from DeCastro and probably would have scored on this play instead of gaining 1 yard.
Here is a play against Baltimore that is designed to be a run to the right behind James Washington (13) leading through the hole. He decides there is nothing there and chooses to go left where his cutback lane is also clogged. He will then attempt to head outside where he had room but he does and outside inside outside move that causes him to stumble.
I’m not sure what he saw that made him hesitate back and forth but if he heads outside right away he’ll get the corner and have a big gain.
We all know McFarland has plenty of athleticism to play in the NFL. It is not an issue about him not being able to run inside; he can. He should not be compared to players like Dri Archer or Chris Rainey; he is a different type of running back and outweighs them by 30-35 pounds.
This is just a few examples from his runs this year and he has had some good reads as well. Remember he didn’t get to have a preseason. Last year Benny Snell got 26 carries in preseason games. Those are invaluable to a rookie to help them adjust to playing at the NFL level.
This week could be very important in his development with so many running backs out against the Ravens there is a chance he could get more touches and that can only help him going forward. In the coming weeks I’d expect McFarland’s tempo and patience behind the line of scrimmage to improve as well as his gap decisions.
Big plays are out there for McFarland. You can see in the clips above that once everything starts to click between his mind and body he will truly become another big threat for this offense.