Get Anything: Conservative Titans Doom Themselves In Pittsburgh

PITTSBURGH – The Titans have changed their quarterback, but they haven’t changed their thinking.

Ryan Tannehill-style conservativism used with Will Levis, who made multiple throws as he was hit or with defenders bearing down, was a big factor in the Titans' 20-16 loss at Acrisure Stadium.

Nov 2, 2023; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Tennessee Titans quarterback Will Levis (8) throws under pressure from the Pittsburgh Steelers defense during the first quarter at Acrisure Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports
  Will Levis/ © Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

Instead of returning to Nashville at 4-4 in a great position, Tennessee is 3-5 and left to scratch and claw with little realistic hope of registering what will be considered a successful season.

It might have all been different if they’d shown a little more faith and taken a little more risk. 

But Mike Vrabel and Tim Kelly played the game thinking anything they could get from Nick Folk would be of supreme value, while their opponent, the similarly low-scoring Steelers, found enough plays to get to the end zone when they needed to. [Unlocked]

Levis was hardly the same guy we saw just four days earlier, when he threw four touchdowns against the Falcons at Nissan Stadium, including three bombs. The Steelers are a better defense with a pass rush better equipped to take advantage of their guest's weak offensive tackle situation. He finished 22 of 39 for 262 yards with no TDs, a game-ending semi-desperation pick, a 66.4 passer rating and four sacks.

But Levis showed he can stand in and make a throw in a bad situation.

He drew two roughing the passer penalties from referee Jon Hussey and his crew, who’d called only one previously all season. Levis found Kyle Philips with an 11-yard pass as he was hit, connected with Nick Westbrook-Ikhine for 23 yards as he absorbed contact and was banged into as he let go of a short pass that Derrick Henry bobbled, collected and took 23 yards.

Still, facing a third-and-10 from the Pittsburgh 19-yard-line with 25 seconds to go before halftime and a timeout in their pockets, the Titans had Levis hand the ball to Tyjae Spears for a 1-yard gain before Nick Folk kicked a 36-yard field goal to make the score 13-10, Titans.

BryMakWhy not take an end zone shot there, allowing the rookie QB who’d done nothing but smart things through three halves of football to throw a TD or an incompletion in a quest for 4 additional, super-valuable points?

“I felt like we needed to secure points right there,” Vrabel said. “We’ve been through this before, had other opportunities at third-and-10 down there where there is not a whole lot of space, and again, I just felt like getting the points right there was critical. And if we bust a run and they are back, great, we break one. Just didn't figure that (a pass) was good for us."

So make a wish that Spears, who came into the game with three carries over 19 yards in 34 carries, pops a 19-yard TD, instead of going with a far higher percentage play: Levis strong-arming a 19-yard score.

The Cleveland situation in Week 3 was not entirely similar, though Vrabel acknowledged it was part of what he was referencing. Against the Browns, the Titans had no way to stop the clock if Tannehill took a sack after snapping the ball with 13 seconds left from the 11-yard line. Myles Garrett got to him very quickly and the team didn’t get any points, going to the locker room down 13-3 in a game they lost 27-3.

“I think you always try to learn from every experience,” Vrabel said when asked about that one. “And I felt like the way that it was going that those points were going to be critical. Didn’t want to put anybody in a situation, especially the quarterback in his second start on the road in this environment. Again if it was third-and-5 and we felt like a little bit favorable down and distance so that’s the decision we made.” 

Levis had already shown himself to be a daring and confident player, and he surely would have welcomed the chance to take a shot. I doubt he would have been irresponsible with it.

Vrabel and Kelly prefer to look back and think they gave the team its best chance by ensuring 3 points, 3 points that would very likely have still been available one snap later.

And as early as it is for the promising young quarterback, he’s already been coached to parrot some of the Vrabel and Kelly ridiculousness. Of course, he can’t say anything else.

“I was pumped just to go down and get points in that 1:16 I think it was,” he said, “Just to go down there and get anything was a win for us. Obviously, you want to get down the touchdown, but you want to be smart. I trust the coaches with their play calls. We’re going to go out and execute, whatever that is."

Except for coming up 17 yards short on the prayerful rush attempt by Spears. In case they busted a run.

“Getting anything” is a win for a Vrabel/ Kelly offense. 

Folk has now been a hero 19 times in 19 chances and he accounts for 70 of the team’s 148 points, 47 percent.

Even if you forgive the conservatism on this late second-quarter third-down, it was a harbinger of things to come and an over-reliance on the run game.

The Titans got the ball with spectacular field position aided by a penalty and a 29-yard by Spears with 4:02 left in the game.

Staring at their own 48 down 20-16, here’s the electric idea the Titans had for going down and getting the touchdown they needed:

  • First-and-10: Treylon Burks end-around for 5 yards
  • Second-and-5: A Derrick Henry run left tackle for 1 yard
  • Third-and-4: Spears run left guard for no gain

Yes! That will do it for you. No passing is the way.

On third-and-four Kelly knew he had got two plays, so a run wasn’t outrageous. But then the fourth down call was a low-percentage deep ball up the left side, on which Burks, unfortunately, landed badly, hitting his head so severely that he needed to be carted off.

“We’re in four-down territory,” Vrabel said. “Again we’ve other opportunities where we’ve caught them in some third-down defense, slipped in there (with a run). It just wasn’t executed very well. So I don’t have an issue with the call, knowing that we were going to go for it on fourth down. We may be able to slip one of the more elusive players -- especially on our team, if not throughout the league -- …in there when maybe they are running up the field or pass rushing.

“It didn’t go that way. There are a lot of calls, performances and executions that can be second-guessed. I told Timmy that it was four-down and that’s the call that we made.”

Spears didn’t have anything going in this game to suggest he was going to make a key play in a key moment, though he’s certainly capable of it at any time. He had five carries for 18 yards after the Titans were finished giving it to him on the most crucial plays. 

Kuharsky megaphoneHe’s earned a high level of trust through his work so far as the team’s third-round pick. I hope Levis is in the same spot at an even faster rate and that the coaches will look to him to make the big play in the big moment sooner.

They got the ball for one last crack with 1:44 left, 85 yards to travel and one timeout. The offense maneuvered to the 19 again and had the third-and-5 Vrabel favored but under much worse time circumstances. With 11 seconds left, Levis threw his first pick, to Kwon Alexander in front of the intended Josh Whyle.

With five losses, odds are it’ll be too late to salvage a swing at the division or a wild card spot this season. The Titans desperately needed this game to be able to mount that challenge. 

The Steelers gained a game and a tiebreaker on them. Six other teams will have a chance to gain ground on them in the AFC as the rest of Week 8 plays out.

But hey, in the getting anything department, Folk safely got the field goal before the half. 

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