AJ McCarron put up big numbers against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl on Thursday night (387 yards, two touchdowns), but this wasn't one of his better games. For one of the few times during his career, the Alabama quarterback was under intense pass-rush pressure and he didn't handle it very well.
When I watched him on tape, I made note of the fact that he usually operates in a very clean environment. This stat backs up that observation: McCarron was only sacked 14 times during the regular season. He wasn't afforded the same protection against a fast, aggressive Sooners defense. They generated a consistent pass rush and sacked McCarron seven times. Even when they didn't get him on the ground, the pressure bothered the veteran signal-caller and led to three turnovers. Here's what happened:
1. Up 7-0 early in the game, Alabama's defense produced a turnover and gave its offense the ball around midfield. However, on the very next play, McCarron forced the ball into triple coverage and OU safety Gabe Lynn hauled in the overthrown ball.
2. Later in the first half, with Alabama trailing 24-17, McCarron failed to transfer his weight to his front side while under heavy pressure and floated the ball into tight coverage for another interception.
3. Trailing 38-31 with 56 seconds left in the game, Alabama took over the ball at its own 18-yard line. There wouldn't be any late-game heroics. On the first play of the drive, left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio was beat around the edge and Sooners LB Erik Striker sacked McCarron, forced a fumble and watched his teammate Geneo Grissom scoop up the ball and score a touchdown.
I don't blame McCarron for the third turnover, but the first two were definitely his fault. He has a mechanical flaw that continually shows up on tape and it was an issue in Thursday night's game. He rarely digs his cleats into the ground and drives off of his back foot. He throws entirely with his upper body and the ball loses life on drive throws. There is a difference between deep ball throws and drive throws. He is a very good deep ball thrower (he lofted a beautiful 67-yard touchdown at the start of the second quarter), but he struggles to generate the necessary RPMs to fit balls in tight windows on drive throws.
There were some positive moments in his performance. He had a couple nifty pocket escapes that resulted in first-down throws, and he showed the ability to work through his progression and get the ball to his third read. However, a lot of his passing yardage was the result of quick throws and impressive efforts from the Bama skill players. One example came in the fourth quarter when hulking freshman running back Derrick Henry took a short dump-off pass and turned it into a 61-yard score.
McCarron is a player that elicits a wide range of opinions from NFL evaluators. I've talked to executives that believe he is a lock to be a solid NFL starting quarterback, while others have told me they view him as a long-term backup signal-caller at the next level. My opinion lands somewhere in the middle of those two camps. I do believe McCarron has the potential to be a functional starting quarterback in the right system/situation, but he really needs to work on his lower-body mechanics.
Follow Daniel Jeremiah on Twitter @MoveTheSticks.