As AJ McCarron gets chances, the game doesn't look 'too big' for him

Second-year QB AJ McCarron is building up his practice reps in the event he's called in to play in the regular season. John Minchillo/AP

CINCINNATI -- This next week may be the most important one of AJ McCarron's young NFL career.

Between now and next Thursday's preseason finale at Indianapolis, the second-year Cincinnati Bengals backup quarterback will want to put as much positive play on game tape as possible. Because once the preseason ends and the regular season begins, barring something disastrous happening with starter Andy Dalton, McCarron's game reps grind to a screeching halt.

That's not all that changes for him. The regularity of McCarron's practice opportunities fades, as does his chance to have daily practice growth. So whatever he can do within these next six days, the better a position he will place himself in the event he has to relieve Dalton this season.

Based off what he saw Monday night at Tampa Bay, coach Marvin Lewis views McCarron's standing on the team positively.

"The game wasn't too big," Lewis said of McCarron's two quarters of work in the 25-11 loss.

Part of what Lewis was most impressed with was something McCarron had mentioned to ESPN in the days leading up to the game. With the expectation he would be getting the first live game action of his career, McCarron said he wanted to stay even-keeled and keep his emotions in check regardless whether good or bad things were happening to his offense.

With penalties from his teammates on two of the first three plays McCarron was part of, the bad things started early.

"I just kind of told them, 'Hey, one positive play,'" McCarron said, relaying his in-huddle messages after his unit's shaky start. "It doesn't have to be a big play, it just has to be a positive play and one that will keep that momentum going."

After back-to-back three-and-outs and a safety, McCarron's offense finally took his advice on its fourth drive. As the positive plays came, McCarron's Bengals began clicking.

The pivotal series started with a 12-yard first-down pass to tight end Tyler Kroft. A couple plays later, Cedric Peerman caught a first-down pass. Three plays after that, Peerman caught another. A play after that, undrafted rookie receiver Jake Kumerow hauled in a 27-yard reception that included a broken tackle and several yards after the catch. Two other completed passes and a pair of James Wilder Jr. runs later and McCarron had led an 11-play, 80-yard touchdown drive.

The scoring series was capped when McCarron tossed a backward pass to Wilder that the second-year running back ran out wide left before expertly diving over the pylon for a two-point conversion.

McCarron finished the night 11-for-15 for 97 yards and a sack.

"We had an instance last week in practice that mirrored in the game," Lewis said. "If you get out of the pocket, move on to the next down. Don't try to do too much and get trapped and then you lose all chances to do everything. Those are the things he's going to have to learn as he goes."

Examples like McCarron's touchdown drive provide tangible goals he will try to one-up when he gets in late during Saturday's game against the Chicago Bears.

"I kept telling the guys, if we get started fine we can get on a roll," McCarron said. "We have a good rhythm as a group, and the mojo was back once that positive play [Kroft's catch] happened. You could feel it in the guys. We started going fast-tempo, which helped. But guys were having fun."