The Pittsburgh Steelers have not been great in the return game for some time now, for the most part, at least in the kick return game. They’ve had some positive seasons in punt returns, like Diontae Johnson’s year back there in 2019, and Antonio Brown was a good one early in his career.
But by and large, Ray-Ray McCloud’s play last season in both roles was a welcome change of pace for most fans. That doesn’t mean, however, that he won’t be challenged for that job, and you may have noticed second-year running back Anthony McFarland getting a lot of reps there in the preseason. Special teams coordinator Danny Smith shared his thoughts on what he’s seen from the Terp.
“McFarland did a good job in the kickoff return game, and I think he can be one”, he told reporters yesterday. “We had a couple of cuts there and he hit it and a guy slid off. We were decent, but we don’t live here to be decent”.
Smith went on to talk about general improvements the team has made in the return game over the course of the past season, and insisted that it will continue to improve (the blocking was indeed better, regardless of the returner).
“In direct answer to your question, I was very pleased in McFarland as a kick returner”, he continued, and hinted there could be more in the future. “He’s still got a long way to go, a long way to grow. We’re working him in the punt game. We haven’t put him back there yet. I’m not looking to do that any time real soon”.
But he did say there is a chance the coaching staff might decide to put McFarland on punt return duty in their next preseason games “because the numbers might dictate that”. As the rosters are trimmed—they’re already down five players—you may lose potential return candidates in the process.
In spite of that fact that he only ever had one return during his college career, his college coach, Mike Locksley, insisted that he could do it after the Steelers drafted him. “Every day he caught punts. Now, we never had to put him in a game as a punt returner, but he is capable of adding special teams value as a returner”, he said.
McFarland had a lackluster rookie season overall a year ago, though the fact that the offseason was interrupted surely did not help. He showed improvement so far this year, particularly in the last preseason game, and offensive coordinator Matt Canada, who coached him at Maryland in 2018, is optimistic about his growth.
And so is Smith, who may get him on some of his units this year. (McFarland recorded a tackle on kickoff coverage last week. Did you catch that?) “He’s doing a good job, working very hard at it, and taking it”, the special teams coordinator said. “The rest of the guys, we’ve got to see a lot more for them to be NFL caliber”.