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Steelers starters take notice of McFarland

| Saturday, April 5, 2008

Free-agent defensive lineman Anthony "Booger" McFarland has won more Super Bowls than Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel, who comprise the Steelers' starting defensive line.

Torn patella tendon or not, the Steelers recent flirtation with McFarland and his two Super Bowl rings should get the attention of those starters.

McFarland didn't leave Pittsburgh with a desired contract last week, but coach Mike Tomlin still managed to get his point across to his players.

Since the end of last season, Tomlin has repeated that the Steelers need to become quicker and younger on the offensive and defensive lines. At 30, McFarland is no longer a kid, but he can still be a disruptive, pass-rushing force when healthy.

Make that a motivating force, as well.

The mention of McFarland possibly joining the Steelers should light a fire under Hampton, Keisel and Smith.

Since the Steelers aren't changing to a 4-3 anytime soon, the 3-4 remains their defense of choice. That would mean fewer snaps for the starters if McFarland, who can play tackle and end, joined the team, and Tomlin put him in the rotation.

"He's a veteran football player that's a good football player. He's won world championships in two different cities," Tomlin said of McFarland this week during the owners meetings in Florida. "We felt it was worthy of our time to spend a day with him, We'll see where that goes. Absolutely."

Unless Tomlin is playing mind games, his words indicate there could be a roster spot for McFarland if he makes a full recovery from the knee injury he suffered last August.

"Anthony had an extremely positive visit with the Steelers, and I think it was mutual," said agent Karl Bernard, who stressed that no negotiations took place between his client and the Steelers. "There was no urgency from the Steelers to sign him right now. Based on the conversations I've had, it's definitely a possibility that he could be in a Steelers' uniform."

The Steelers defensive front struggled to generate a consistent pass rush late in the season. Not only is McFarland a noted pass rusher, he's one that Tomlin is familiar with. Tomlin was Tampa Bay's secondary coach from 2001-2005 when McFarland was there.

Like it or not, Tomlin needs more of his "guys" on the Steelers -- players that he selected personally and feels comfortable with. And if it happens to be a player with whom Tomlin had a previous working relationship, that's even better.

In McFarland's case, it's unlikely that Tomlin would have checked out another player recovering from major knee surgery unless he knew that player personally.

According to Bernard, McFarland's knee is at about 70 percent. McFarland still has a ways to go before he can realistically return to action.

"There hasn't been a problem with his knee," Bernard said. "He's ahead of schedule."

If the 2008 season were to start today, McFarland wouldn't be able to take the field. Still, the Steelers met with McFarland at this stage of his rehabilitation because Tomlin knows McFarland and trusts him.

Tomlin knows McFarland, the way he knows current center Sean Mahan, whom the Steelers signed to a free-agent contract a year ago. Mahan also played with Tomlin in Tampa Bay.

Mahan was the first of Tomlin's "guys" to join him on the Steelers. Don't be surprised if Tomlin gives McFarland a second look.

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