There were times in Tennessee Titans quarterback Will Levis’ first NFL road game on Thursday against the Pittsburgh Steelers when he looked like the same guy who ripped the Atlanta Falcons’ defense to shreds last Sunday in his overall NFL debut. Levis, who became the third quarterback in pro football history to throw four touchdown passes and no interceptions in his first start (Fran Tarkenton and Marcus Mariota) fell to earth a bit, completing 22 of 39 passes for 262 yards, no touchdowns, a game-ending interception, and a passer rating of 66.4 — quite the drop from the 130.1 he put up against Atlanta.
Now, few people were expecting Levis to do against the Steelers what he did against the Falcons. In his NFL debut, Levis became the first NFL quarterback since at least 2016 to complete three touchdown passes of 50+ air yards. That’s not the kind of thing that happens repeatedly, no matter how good you are.
So, regression was inevitable after such an explosive first game. But as much as Titans offensive coordinator Tim Kelly dialed things up brilliantly for his young quarterback before… maybe it was the short week, but there were too many instances in which Kelly’s plan for Levis just didn’t make sense. That was evident on the broadcast, and it really came into view with the All-22 on Friday morning.
Before we get into that, and Tennessee’s especially weird two final drives, a few metrics:
Against the Falcons in that historic debut, Levis completed eight of 13 passes with play-action for 116 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions, and a passer rating of 130.1. Against the Steelers, Levis had just seven attempts with play-action, completing four for 62 yards, including a 23-yard completion to Derrick Henry, and a 21-yard completion to Treylon Burks.
Levis completed nine of 12 passes with pre-snap motion against the Falcons for 101 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions, and a passer rating of 139.2. Against the Steelers, Levis had just seven attempts with pre-snap motion, completing one for -8 yards.
None of the plays on Tennessee’s final two drive had either motion or play-action. The hurry-up nature of that drive would negate motion to a point, but as the Titans had someone else with Levis in the backfield on 10 of his final-drive throws, I’m at a loss there.
“Atypical” is an odd word to use for a quarterback who’s started two NFL games, but the stark strategic and schematic differences told a story. Let’s dive into what ultimately became a 20-16 Steelers win, pushing Tennessee to 3-5 at their halfway mark for the season.
The Titans played with their food too often.
When Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett hit receiver Diontae Johnson for Johnson’s first touchdown catch since the Theodore Roosevelt administration (or the wild-card round of the 2021 season, if we’re being literal), that gave Pittsburgh a 20-16 load, and 3:36 left in the game for the Titans to do.. well, anything. On their first drive after that touchdown, Mike Vrabel’s team played with its food, calling three straight run plays for a total of six yards. On fourth-and-four from the Pittsburgh 46-yard line with 2:13 left in the game, Levis tried to hit Burks with the kind of back-shoulder fade he demolished the Falcons with. Unfortunately, Burks was injured on the play.
“He’s pressing, and, again, we’re trying to get the ball down the field to Treylon and thought that was a good opportunity,” Vrabel said of the Burks attempt. “The quarterback has a lot of decisions when we call a play, and I liked that decision. Just would’ve liked to come down with it. Those are things that Treylon has done for us in the past and needs to continue to do. You know, they were pressed up there and isolated coverage on the backside.”
All the more reason for Hopkins to be the guy out there.
The route concepts weren't especially helpful.
Levis’ final completion of the game was a 12-yarder to tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo with 26 seconds left in the game that took the ball to the Pittsburgh 24-yard line. This was actually a cool levels concept with Okonkwo going to the flat from the formation, and receivers Chris Moore and Nick Westbrook-Ikhine running the intermediate and deep routes. Levis had more time than he probably thought he would, as right tackle Dillon Radunz did a nice job of blocking T.J. Watt despite Watt’s motion rush. So maybe he should have gone downfield here, but when No. 90 is bearing down on you, and you have the Titans’ tackle deficiencies this season, it’s understandable. But this combination cut through Pittsburgh’s Cover-3 pretty well.
Levis and the Titans can learn from this.
None of this is to bash Tim Kelly — he’s dealing with a new starting quarterback with specific skills to scheme to, he had a short week and a road game to put his plan together, and he had to do it against a much better defense this time. And it isn’t to bash Levis; Tennessee’s protection issues were far more pronounced in this game, as one might expect. Perhaps it was the idea to make things simpler against that Steelers’ defense. But it’s still the responsibility of a coach to maximize situations for his quarterback, and Kelly did that brilliantly against the Falcons.
The Titans get the Buccaneers’ multi-layered defense in Week 10, so it’s good that everyone will have a few extra days to sort things out.