AFC South Reporter
Will Levis threw the interception in the final seconds that sealed the Titans’ 20-16 defeat to the Steelers on Thursday Night Football, with Tennessee just inside the red zone and with a chance for the walk-off touchdown.
Levis sat at the chair in his locker postgame looking into the distance.
“Just trying to replay in my mind a little bit some of the things that happened,” he said. “Obviously, knee-jerk reactions are a little different once you go back to watch the tape. Things are usually not as bad as they seem. Or if they were really good, they’re not as good as they seem. Just trying to replay in the heat of the moment how I felt in that moment, what I could’ve done, but just needed to take a couple breaths.”
It feels, though, that the second-round rookie showed more than enough to earn QB1 status for the rest of the season.
The No. 33 overall pick, Levis completed 56.4% of his passes (22-of-39) for 262 yards with no touchdowns and the pick with a 66.4 passer rating in the loss, which dropped the Titans to 3-5. While the showing pales in comparison to his dazzling four-touchdown debut last week, Levis again showed poise and command at the line of scrimmage — all the more impressive considering what was working against him. He played in prime time for the first time, on a short week on the road, against a talented (and aggressive) Steelers defensive front and had a banged-up offensive line protecting him.
Already without starting right tackle Chris Hubbard (concussion), the Titans saw four of their starting offensive linemen get hurt at different points Thursday. Nicholas Petit-Frere, Tennessee’s starting left tackle playing on the right side due to Hubbard’s absence, was held to 15 snaps due to a shoulder injury. Levis was pressured on 45.5% of his dropbacks, according to Next Gen Stats. But at times he seemed to transcend the issues around him — and conservative playcalling — to make big-time throws and keep communication clean in a hostile environment at Acrisure Stadium.
“There were no delay of games,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel acknowledged. “There were some things that will have to be better as far as just directionally. … But there were some good throws.”
It started during the Titans’ second possession of the game, when Tennessee faced a first-and-23 in the shadow of its own end zone after consecutive holding penalties. The former Kentucky star bailed out the Titans, firing a dart in stride to wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins for a 29-yard gain on the next play.
Early in the fourth quarter, with Tennessee backed up in its own territory, he hit Treylon Burks on a 21-yard crossing route, layering the ball perfectly over two defenders. (Later in the quarter, Burks was carted off the field after trying to make a leaping grab down the left sideline. After the game, Burks reportedly walked to the team bus under his own power.) In the third quarter, Levis completed an improbable, split-second screen pass to running back Derrick Henry as Steelers linebacker Alex Highsmith drilled the QB into the ground — a play that picked up 23 yards.
The second-round pick also showed composure in a two-minute drill at the end of the half. The Titans got the ball with 1:16 remaining in the second period and all three timeouts. Levis had consecutive completions of 20-plus yards to receiver Kyle Philips to set up Nick Folk’s 36-yard field goal as time expired, giving Tennessee a 13-10 lead entering the third quarter.
One of the most impressive things Levis did Thursday was subtle. With 1:49 left in the third period, he recognized a cornerback blitz pre-snap, appeared to adjust the protection and fired a quick out to Burks for two yards, avoiding the potential negative play.
And despite the pick at the end, Levis gave the Titans a chance on their last drive, too. After Steelers cornerback Joey Porter Jr.’s fourth-down hold on Hopkins gave Tennessee new life, two plays later Levis connected with veteran wideout Chris Moore on a 29-yarder to get deep in Pittsburgh territory with 44 seconds left.
“I feel like he was in the moment,” receiver Nick Westbrook-Ikhine told reporters of the final possession, via ESPN. “He wasn’t letting it get too big. He wasn’t overhyped. He was just coming into the huddle with the play call and he was just about his business.”
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Between Levis’ spectacular debut Sunday and gritty performance Thursday, it’s not clear what else he would need to do to be QB1 officially, even when Ryan Tannehill returns from his high ankle sprain. It’s time for the Levis era in Nashville, considering all that was invested in him, the juice he has brought to the offense and Tannehill’s expiring contract (the veteran QB is set to be an unrestricted free agent this offseason).
Levis plays with confidence. He has made big-time throws. He doesn’t appear to be overwhelmed in the huddle or at the line of scrimmage. His cannon arm opens up the Titans’ passing game, lightening up the box for Derrick Henry. He gives Tennessee a chance to win.
This shouldn’t be a hard decision when Tannehill returns: Give Levis the keys.
Ben Arthur is the AFC South reporter for FOX Sports. He previously worked for The Tennessean/USA TODAY Network, where he was the Titans beat writer for a year and a half. He covered the Seattle Seahawks for SeattlePI.com for three seasons (2018-20) prior to moving to Tennessee. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @benyarthur.
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