TAMPA _ When they drafted AJ McCarron out of Alabama in the fifth round back in 2014, this is what the Bengals thought they were getting.
A poised, confident quarterback who could use his savvy and leadership to be a competent No. 2 in the league. And McCarron delivered that kind of performance Monday night in his NFL debut when he led the Bengals to their only touchdown of the game on an otherwise dreadful night of offense.
It was so bad that by the time the Bengals got the ball with 7:43 left in the game, they were down, 25-3, after allowing a safety that came on only McCarron's seventh snap after taking over at halftime. But McCarron persevered through three holding calls, an illegal formation and the safety when he hit eight of 10 passes for 66 yards while taking the Bengals 80 yards and running back James Wilder's five-yard touchdown run with 2:45 left in the game.
"He took charge," Wilder said. "He's not just one of these guys just making plays. He's a leader. We're real tight. That's the thing I love about him. When I'm in there, I'm making sure no one touches AJ. He's that guy who brings everybody in if things aren't going right. 'Everybody huddle up.' That's something you need."
The Bengals needed something on a night Tampa Bay beat them by two touchdowns even though the Bucs committed 14 penalties. McCarron found the same ice he used to win at Alabama and the same chemistry he has produced with the backups in practice in the drive. He hit rookie wide receiver Jake Kumerow on two catches for 27 yards after finding rookie tight end Tyler Kroft on two balls for 20 yards to start the drive.
With the Bucs in a prevent, McCarron had to go underneath.
"You have to take what they give you," McCarron said. "When you're in longer down and distances and they're playing prevent defense, you have to take what they give you. You have to check the longer throws and the windows are smaller.
"We got in a good rhythm and put a good drive together," said McCarron, who finished 11 of 15 for 97 yards. "It's good to see the guys get that mojo back in them and some excitement."
McCarron threw two slants to Kumerow, one for 16 yards in between a Cover 2. Then he set up Wilder's touchdown when he saw Kumerow win a one-on-one match up slanting inside for 11 more yards.
To start the drive, McCarron got a first down for 12 yards to Kroft posting up underneath coverage and then he found him again for eight more to set up a third-and-two they converted.
"I was reading the coverage and had to make the break and AJ and I were on the same page," Kroft said. "That chemistry came through a little bit. He's a really smart player and knows what he's doing. He put us in the right situations."
McCarron was just happy to be playing a game for the first time in nearly 600 days. A bout with shoulder tendinitis all but erased his rookie season and he hadn't strapped it on since Jan. 2, 2014.
"It was awesome," he said. "Just being out for so long and being back with the guys. Being in this atmosphere, it was an awesome experience."