AJ McCarron did on Sunday what no starting quarterback out of Alabama had done since Jeff Rutledge in 1987. He won an NFL game. And, he did it in his first NFL start.
McCarron started out the game handing off the ball frequently to Giovani Bernard, who like McCarron, started his first game of the season on Sunday. It's unclear why Bernard got the start and all the carries in the first quarter over Jeremy Hill who was not injured and was simply sitting on the sidelines watching his teammates. On the Bengals' first offensive drive, McCarron handed off the ball to Bernard twice in a row before scrambling on third down and going three and out. On the next drive, Bernard got even more action with five of the six plays being handoffs to the third year running back.
McCarron went 15 of 21 for 192 yards, 1 touchdown pass and a passer rating of 115.6. He was also sacked four times, but had 0 interceptions. "With a lead I'm not throwing an interception," McCarron said after the game.
While his numbers aren't bad, and not throwing an interception in a first NFL start is impressive, the offense seemed to look worse than the numbers show. At time, the offensive line was to blame for that, as was the run game. The offense was also greatly helped out by receiving excellent field position on a number of drives, including the Bengals' second scoring drive, which started on the San Francisco 36 yard line after an 18 yard punt went out of bounds.
After the game, McCarron said he felt it went well. "I felt especially in the first half we did a good job of up-tempo and pushing the ball down the field. We just have to come out with the same energy in the second half. We slacked off as an offense but the positive thing is that we took care of the football for the most part. They had turnovers, we didn’t, and that’s the key to the game. I felt good about it."
Limiting turnovers was something McCarron excelled at in college. "They turned the ball over four times and we didn’t, so I think that’s a big key to success in this league," McCarron said. "Whatever I do, I’m not going to turn the ball over. There’s no reason to take chances. You have to know when to take chances and when not to. We had a 24-0 lead, so there was no reason for me to fit it in a smaller window, even if I might have a chance to complete that."
Marvin Jones was McCarron's favorite target of the afternoon. McCarron threw him six passes, four of which were caught for 89 yards, including a 47 yard gain. Bernard also caught 4/4 passes for 18 yards. Tyler Kroft, who McCarron likely has the most experience practicing with (as both were backups turned starters this week) caught McCarron's lone touchdown pass of the afternoon. In total, McCarron connected with six receivers total on Sunday, Mohamed Sanu, A.J. Green and Ryan Hewitt were the other three recipients of his throws. Green may have been dealt a better stat line had he not been pulled from the game for precautionary reasons after injuring his back in practice yesterday. He was downgraded moments before the game started as questionable to play, but did start on the Bengals' first offensive drive.
While the Bengals' rushing attack was one of the low points of the game, McCarron said he thought Green leaving the matchup helped the 49ers attack the Bengals' running backs. "I think in the second half when [Green] went out, they started to load the blocks up a little more. We had a big lead and were trying to eat up some clock at the same time. We just have to execute better as an offense and another week together will be big and it will help us big time."
Even though McCarron referenced there being no need to take chances and there was a clear favoring of the run over the passing game, McCarron didn't think the Bengals played a conservative game. "We have a 24-0 lead so your mindset kind of changes as an offense. I felt like in the first half we were throwing the ball and up-tempo. But any time you have a big lead, your mindset changes a little bit. It goes back to us. We just have to execute a little better. Once we get on the same page, we'll be fine."
Though McCarron said he had some butterflies prior to the game, he also said he felt calm and felt pretty good about the game plan. Andy Dalton also helped loosen McCarron up on the sidelines. "When I came over, he told me what he saw and we kind of confirmed with each other. Other than that, he was cracking some jokes and messing with me to keep me loose. That’s just the way we are, that’s our relationship. He was trying to be funny most of the time."
McCarron was then asked if Andy is funny, to which he replied, "Yeah, he can be. I guess you just need to get to know him a little bit better. I spend a lot of time with him."
The Bengals have a full week to prepare for the Broncos as their Week 16 matchup with Denver will be on Monday Night Football. They'll also have a change up in their practice routine with Christmas on Friday.
Another week of practice gives McCarron more reps with his new weapons and another week of film to watch to learn from his mistakes. Next week will be a real test and a huge opportunity for both the Bengals and their new leader.