AJ McCarron may be the backup quarterback the Pittsburgh Steelers do not want to face.
The Cincinnati Bengals quarterback is preparing to start his first career NFL playoff game on Saturday with Andy Dalton out injured, but McCarron may be ready for the pressure.
As a three-year starter at the University of Alabama, McCarron was constantly in the spotlight. The Crimson Tide was regularly ranked in the top five of the AP and BCS polls during his tenure, and also faced his share of top 25 teams. Alabama was 13-4 against ranked opponents with McCarron under center, and won both Southeastern Conference and BCS National Championship games he started.
McCarron faced his share of pressure in college, and shined under the bright lights. He also did not have as big of a learning curve while transitioning to the NFL the way some quarterbacks do.
At Alabama, McCarron operated under center in a pro-style offense. That offense allowed him to work under center, throw to receivers running complex route trees and set him up to make pro-style throws. His success in college coupled with the offense he ran gave him a very favorable scouting report before the NFL Draft.
Among the positives on McCarron’s scouting report included being well-versed at making NFL-style progression reads, good at short-to-intermediate routes, solid height and weight measurables, smooth mechanics, quality leadership skills and a smart decision-maker. His big downside was he does not have elite arm strength and causes his receivers to have to make adjustments on deep passes, limiting McCarron’s upside. Overall, he graded out as a game managing quarterback that may not carry a team to a championship, but can win with talent around him.
Fortunately for McCarron, he has plenty of talent around him in wide receivers A.J. Green and Mohammad Sanu, tight end Tyler Eifert and running backs Jeremy Hill and Giovanni Bernard.
The Bengals have the weapons around McCarron that could allow him to succeed, and that is why the Steelers should not take him lightly. He likely won’t win many games solely with his arm, but he won’t lose many by himself either.
And so far, McCarron has had a good showing in his brief career.
In his seven games this season, McCarron has thrown six touchdowns to two interceptions, with a 66 completion percentage and a quarterback rating of 97.1. He is 2-1 in his three starts, however his sole loss came when he lost a fumble on overtime against the Denver Broncos.
When he entered against the Steelers in Week 14 when Dalton was injured, McCarron did throw his only two interceptions of the season, but also threw for 280 yards and two touchdowns.
Aside from his fumble in Denver, McCarron as done everything he has had to do to put the Bengals in a position to win. His mistakes have been limited, he has a high completion percentage, however he is not taking very many chances downfield.
His 7.18 yards per attempt would be tied for 21st among active quarterbacks, and about a yard and a half less than Dalton’s, whose 8.42 yards per attempt was second in the NFL before his injury.
Cornerbacks in the Steelers defense tend to give a soft cushion against receivers, so they may be wise to play tighter press coverage. Like the scouting reports confirmed, McCarron has shown if his receivers are left open on short and intermediate routes that he can dink-and-dunk his offense down the field into scoring position.
He needs to be tested downfield. McCarron has performed well in the spotlight in his football career, so the Steelers cannot pin their hopes that the playoff jitters throw him off his game.
The Steelers need to make McCarron beat them. If they do not, he may game-manage his way to a victory.