AJ McCarron can carry the Bengals as far as they need him to


When AJ McCarron stepped in for an injured Andy Dalton last Sunday, the young Bengals backup had an extremely short NFL résumé, with just three preseason appearances and a handful of regular-season snaps under his belt. McCarron proceeded to complete 22 of 32 throws for 280 yards, two scores and two picks, with a passer rating of 90.6, in a loss to Pittsburgh. Dalton's injury won't require surgery, meaning the veteran could return at some point. But the question remains: What is Cincinnati's outlook behind the second-year pro?

What's the book on AJ McCarron?

When the Bengals selected McCarron with the 164th overall pick of the 2014 NFL Draft, I believed Marvin Lewis and Hue Jackson were getting the most undervalued prospect in the class. The two-time national champion was vastly underrated based on his winning intangibles and solid physical traits. Checking in at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds with above-average arm strength and a compact release, McCarron won nearly 90 percent of his games at Alabama while directing a star-studded offense that featured NFL-caliber players at every position. Although he showed flashes of thriving as a playmaker during his tenure with the Crimson Tide, he acted primarily as a game manager for an offense that complemented a rugged defense.

From a scouting perspective, I thought McCarron exhibited the core traits needed to be a winning NFL quarterback. He was accurate and had just enough arm strength to make every throw in the book, and he displayed exceptional judgement with the ball in his hands. McCarron also showed outstanding anticipation and awareness fitting the ball into tight windows on in-breaking routes between the hashes. In addition, he consistently delivered the ball to receivers within the strike zone on anticipatory throws (outs and comebacks) along the boundary. While he lacked the A-plus arm strength that some offensive coordinators coveted, McCarron's anticipation and timing made up for his limitations as a passer.

In clutch situations, McCarron displayed outstanding poise and leadership skills. He deftly navigated the Crimson Tide down the field in two-minute situations, showing good situational awareness and clock management with the game hanging in the balance. Moreover, McCarron played well in the Crimson Tide's biggest games (see Texas A&M, LSU and Auburn in 2013; the BCS National Championship Games in 2012 and 2013), which suggested that he was comfortable performing on the biggest and brightest stage against elite competition. Thus, I thought he was ideally suited to play on a winning team that simply needed a "bus driver" to navigate them to the winner's circle.

From a critical standpoint, I believed his blitz awareness (poise under pressure) and athleticism could be concerns at the NFL level. Although he exhibited good poise and awareness throughout his career, McCarron's play against an ultra-aggressive and athletic Oklahoma defense in the 2014 Sugar Bowl led to questions about his pocket presence under duress. He appeared rattled by the constant pressure within the pocket, and his inability to escape led to a number of sacks -- McCarron finished that game with seven. While this is typical of most quarterbacks, the lackluster performance against a defense dialing up pressure from all angles certainly raised concerns about his ability to handle an intense pass rush as a pro.

McCarron's perceived competitive arrogance (cockiness) might've hurt his evaluation, with some scouts reportedly taking umbrage with his confidence in interviews at the NFL Scouting Combine. There were plenty of whispers in league circles about his confident manner rubbing executives wrong, which could've contributed to his surprising draft-day slide.

Overall, I thought McCarron was an intriguing quarterback prospect with the winning intangibles, confidence and skills to help a competitive team win a ton of games as a pro. I graded him as a borderline first-round prospect (a developmental quarterback capable of earning a starting spot in Year 2) and pegged him as a quarterback with the potential to carve out a long career as a starter.

Every game, all season

McCarron missed the first part of his rookie season in the NFL with shoulder tightness and did not see a single snap, but I was impressed with his work during the preseason in 2015. He showed better than anticipated arm strength and displayed nice anticipation as a thrower on short and intermediate routes. I thought he put up solid numbers while working with the Bengals' backups in that three-game preseason span. McCarron completed 63.3 percent of his passes for 465 yards with one score and zero interceptions. He posted a 92.7 passer rating and looked comfortable running the show.

The All-22 Coaches Film from the preseason showed a potential NFL starter, based on McCarron's ability to quickly distribute the ball to playmakers on the perimeter. He delivered accurate strikes to receivers on quick-rhythm throws off three- and five-step drops; he also flashed good anticipation and timing on intermediate routes targeted between the hashes or outside the numbers. McCarron was at his best throwing slants, digs, seams and shallow crosses in the Bengals' passing game. Although McCarron struggled a bit against the blitz (seven sacks in three games), he didn't flinch under pressure and didn't appear rattled while playing behind an offensive line that consisted of backups and inexperienced players. Overall, he looked like an ascending player capable of stepping into a starting role if needed.

How much will the Bengals' offense change behind McCarron?

Jackson has done a terrific job building the Bengals' offense around the strengths of Andy Dalton's game. Cincinnati uses an assortment of pre-snap shifts and motions to create mismatches on the perimeter, complementing the constant movement with a precise, quick-rhythm passing game that puts the ball in the hands of playmakers quickly on the perimeter. Dalton's athleticism allows the Bengals to feature some movement passes and sprinkle in a few zone-read concepts, but the bulk of the offense is built around "catch-and-throw" plays that allow the quarterback to play fast from the pocket.

Given McCarron's skills as a disciplined dropback passer with a high football IQ, I believe the Bengals' offense will continue to operate as it has during the first 13 weeks of the season. Jackson will continue to attack opponents with pre-snap shifts, motions and unbalanced formations to test their ability to adjust on the fly. He will likely eliminate some of the zone-read plays with quarterback options due to McCarron's athletic limitations, but he will continue to mix in some RPO (run-pass option) concepts, like bubble screens and isolation slants, to take advantage of his young quarterback's ability to read coverage.

With McCarron displaying impressive anticipation and awareness as a short- and intermediate passer, I would expect Jackson to feature a number of timing-based routes (seams and digs) to attack the voids available between the numbers. In addition, the Bengals will continue to attack defensive backs with double moves (stop-and-go, slant-and-go) outside the numbers due to McCarron's willingness to take deep shots down the boundary. Considering McCarron's experience executing play-action passes from under center during his time at Alabama, the Bengals' offense could use more traditional tactics. After digging into the All-22 coaches' tape, here are four concepts I expect the Bengals to use with McCarron in the lineup:


The WR screen was a big part of the Bengals' offense under Dalton, due to his ability to execute the zone-read. The screen added a triple-option (inside handoff, quarterback run or WR screen) element to the concept, allowing the Bengals to run the play against any defensive front or coverage. McCarron lacks Dalton's running skills. Still, Jackson could employ the tactic from shotgun or traditional formations, to take advantage of soft coverage on the outside.

In the play below, from the loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 14, McCarron exploits "off" coverage by firing a dart to A.J. Green on a "now" screen. The Bengals are aligned in a solo formation, with Green positioned on the outside to the left. Green picks up 4 yards on what is essentially a long handoff to one of the Bengals' most explosive players against soft coverage (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):


The Bengals have used shallow-cross concepts sparingly this season, but McCarron is very comfortable with the high-low read, based on well the young quarterback executed the play during the preseason. He has a great feel for reading the designated defender and using his eyes to hold the defender in place until the Bengals' primary receiver comes open. Given the electric running skills of the perimeter playmakers, the shallow-cross concept gives the team a "low risk, high return" play with which to attack opponents.

In the play below, which occurred in the fourth quarter against the Steelers, the Bengals execute a shallow cross play from a dubs formation. Marvin Jones is positioned at flanker on the left, running the drag route across the field. McCarron takes the snap, drops back and reads the coverage. When he spots Jones open in the crease between the hashes, he drops the ball off to the slippery receiver for a 9-yard gain (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):


The Bengals aggressively push the ball down the field with combination routes designed to attack voids inside the numbers. One of the concepts the Bengals have featured prominently with McCarron in the game is "dagger" (seam-dig combination). The play is designed to put the flat defender in a bind with the vertical clearing the hook zone, leaving plenty of room for the receiver on the square-in.

In the play below, from the third quarter of last Sunday's game, McCarron connects with Green for 21 yards on a "dagger" concept. Green is aligned on the outside, running the deep square in. Jones is positioned in the slot and instructed to run through the zone to create space between the hashes and numbers. When Steelers safety Robert Golden expands to the flat, McCarron has enough space to squeeze the ball into Green just inside the numbers. With McCarron showing good timing and anticipation as a passer, the Bengals could feature the dagger concept prominently in their game plan (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):


The Bengals will push the ball down the field with an assortment of seam and vertical routes designed to test the discipline of second-level defenders. Jackson will mix in some double moves (stutter-go, slant-and-go) on the outside, but the all-go concept (four verticals) is the bread-and-butter of the Bengals' vertical passing game. The four-vertical concept is an effective play against single-high-safety and two-deep looks, as it allows the quarterback to aggressively drive the ball down the field when he reaches the top of his drop.

In the play below, from the fourth quarter of Sunday's game, McCarron hits Mohamed Sanu on a seam route along the hash for a 23-yard gain. The Bengals are aligned in a dubs formation, with Sanu in the slot. He takes an outside release around the flat defender, creating more room for McCarron to make a toss down the seam. McCarron helps Sanu get open by holding the safety in the middle of the field with his eyes before firing the ball into his primary read down the seam. With the vertical stretch route called against the Steelers' single-high-safety look, McCarron was able to generate an explosive play on a simple "pitch-and-catch" play (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):

Jackson is one of the most creative play designers in the NFL. He does a great job tailoring his game plans to suit the strengths of his quarterbacks. Jackson helped Dalton grow into an MVP candidate by sprinkling in some spread concepts and quick-rhythm plays to complement the traditional tactics that are staples of most pro-style playbooks. With McCarron showing promise as an anticipatory thrower with above-average arm talent, Jackson could push the envelope to take advantage of opponents expecting a conservative approach.

Are the Bengals still viable Super Bowl contenders with McCarron?

Even if Dalton's not back in time for the playoffs, I believe Cincinnati is still capable of making a deep run behind McCarron. Dalton was playing at an MVP level prior to his thumb injury, but the jury was still out as to whether he could take his game up a notch during the postseason. He's struggled in prime-time games throughout his career, and there is no guarantee he can guide the Bengals past their first playoff contest.

McCarron is a young player with valuable experience in big games at the college level. He guided Alabama to a pair of national titles by managing the game and allowing the team's top playmakers to make explosive plays on the perimeter. Most importantly, McCarron didn't put the defense in bad spots with stupid turnovers and miscues. Thus, I believe he will play "winning football" and make enough plays to keep the Bengals in the hunt for the duration of his time in the lineup. If McCarron finds his rhythm over the next few weeks, Cincinnati might actually be in a better position to claim the title behind an ultra-confident passer with a winning pedigree, should he wind up getting postseason snaps.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.



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