Andy Dalton went down in the first quarter of a 33-20 loss to the Steelers with a fractured right thumb. But not all hope is lost. While A.J. McCarron made costly mistakes, he also showed he may very well be able to hold down the fort until Dalton can suit up again. For highlights and analysis of Dalton's and McCarron's performances vs. the Steelers, watch the following video:
Dalton was 3/5 for 59 yards with 0 touchdowns and 1 interception, giving him a QB rating of 61.7 and a QBR of 0.8. McCarron was 22/32 for 280 yards with 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions, good for a QB rating of 90.6 and a QBR of 36.4.
On the interception that may have changed the course of the Bengals' season, Dalton apparently did not give the screen play enough time to develop. While running back Giovani Bernard did not sufficiently chip defensive end Stephon Tuitt, Dalton probably had another split second before he had to throw the ball. Unfortunately, not only would the Steelers score off the turnover and take a 10-0 lead, but Cincinnati ended up losing its Pro Bowl quarterback potentially for the rest of the regular season when he valiantly dove at the feet of Tuitt and prevented a long return.
On the bright side, McCarron showed that he is willing to assume the leadership void left by Dalton; what he lacks in experience, McCarron almost makes up for in confidence. He found success throwing downfield (averaging 8.75 yards per attempt), and almost connected on few more deep throws to A.J. Green and Marvin Jones. If Eifert cannot suit up next week, expect Jones to play a bigger role, as he and McCarron appear to have some chemistry.
McCarron mixed spectacular plays (like the 66 yarder to Green) with rookie mistakes (staring down Mohamed Sanu on a quick out route that was intercepted and returned for a touchdown by William Gay), and, as a result, the Bengals found themselves in a 23-7 hole early in the second half. Nonetheless, with a little under six minutes left in the fourth quarter, McCarron put the team in position to make it a one possession game. However, his 23 yard completion to tight end Tyler Kroft that moved the ball into Steelers territory was called back due to an unfounded holding penalty on tackle Andrew Whitworth. On the very next play, McCarron, trying to do too much, threw a ball he had no business throwing that was intercepted by Robert Golden.
McCarron will make his first career NFL start next week in San Francisco. In Week 14, the 49ers surrendered 24 points to a Johnny Manziel-led Browns offense because San Francisco could not stop the run. Cleveland ran for 230 yards on 41 carries (a hearty 5.6 yards per carry). Expect offensive coordinator Hue Jackson to similarly rely on the run to minimize mistakes.
Indeterminable. In what may be his final performance of the regular season, Dalton ended a strong drive with a rare mistake. But with A.J. Green's ability to get behind the Steelers' defensive backs, Dalton may have been in for a big day. We will never know. Now Bengals fans can only hope for a speedy recovery for Dalton and that McCarron can improve his timing with his receivers and help the team gain a first round playoff bye.