Titans' Malik Willis Leaves A Lot Of Questions With Play Against Vikings

Malik Willis’ practice progress didn’t translate into a smooth outing at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, though he did help led the Titans to a 24-16 win over the Vikings, running very well along the way.

Willis had two concerning plays in the first half that illustrate that, while he’s improved a great deal, his game still has a lot of uncertainty to it.

Tennessee Titans quarterback Malik Willis (7) recovers his fumble as they face the Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minn., Saturday, Aug. 19, 2023.
Malik Willis recovers his own fumble/ © Andrew Nelles / The Tennessean / USA TODAY NETWORK

On a third-possession play-action on first-and-10, he followed his fake handoff to Julius Chestnut with a drop back into a comfortable pocket. With time to step into a throw for an easy 26-yard gain to Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, he bounced the ball to the receiver’s feet. It’s a play that felt like it came out of nowhere, and qualified as a complete miss. [Unlocked]

His interception in the second quarter was similar. He threw over the middle for Racey McMath and didn’t see sinking linebacker Troy Dye, who seemed very much in the line of sight between the quarterback and his intended receiver.

“He was running with the vertical route, there was supposed to be a window there but, he made a great play,” Willis said. “It happens sometimes. His back was turned. Racey is supposed to come right into that window, but he kind of throttled a little bit. (Dye) turned around after he seen him and it just was a bad play. I’ve just got to get down to my checkdown.”

The two puzzling plays didn’t feel like the more decisive, tuned-in Willis who’s been on display at the Titans and Vikings facilities recently. And they came in the course of a first half where he had the starting offensive line for the first quarter and, while he was without DeAndre Hopkins and Treylon Burks, didn’t dip deeper into the receiver pool than Reggie Roberson and Tre’Shaun Harrison.

A third play also qualified as a miss that should have been a simple make: With an early third quarter third-down chance at Harrison, had a TD if he’d led the undrafted rookie. But the pass was a bit behind him, and he had no chance to pull it in with Joejuan Williams tight on that side of the target in coverage.

“I thought there were some good things,” Mike Vrabel said of Willis overall. “He put the ball in harm’s way, but I saw him progress through, I saw him make some plays when there was time, he had some drops that hurt him. It a collective group when you talk about quarterback play, particularly young quarterback play. But there were some cool things in the second half where guys gave him some time. He progressed through and his Racey (McMath) there on third down.”

Willis went into intermission just six of 11 for 57 passing yards and a 31.2 passer rating with three runs for 23 more. He should have had two additional completions. Chig Okonkwo tries failed to corral catchable passes thrown in front of him that could have produced nice gains and hurt Willis’ numbers.

That might have been the extent of his work in a preseason game if the Titans had Will Levis available, or they might have flipped series as they did in the opener at Chicago. But Levis suffered a lower-body injury late in the Thursday practice against Minnesota and the Titans sat him, though he did dress. Ryan Tannehill did not suit up. Mason Kinsey took a couple of QB snaps and has a 6-yard run.

Tennessee and Willis were better in the second half, but should have had an advantage when the Vikings got down to threes and were playing third-string rookie quarterback Jaren Hall in the second half.

Willis finished only 10 of 17 for 85 yards, with the pick and the TD for a 67.0 rating.

He ran really well, with 11 carries for 91 yards contributing a big piece of a 281-yard rushing effort.

“It helps the whole offense, if we can get going we can convert some third downs, some second downs and we just keep staying in front of the sticks,” he said. “That’s what we didn’t do in the first half…

“At first,  I was trying to make sure I was staying in the pocket, just making sure I give everybody an opportunity, and sometimes (Vrabel) is telling me that maybe me getting out if there is better than me throwing a checkdown. That’s just going to be me finding a balance between that.”

The second-year quarterback did throw a sharp, 1-yard scoring pass to Julius Chestnut. And Willis ran more decisively after intermission, finishing with 11 carries for 91 yards.

“I liked his decisiveness in using his athletic ability and committing when he did decide to scramble, that has to be part of his game, he’s such a dynamic player,” Vrabel said. “When it’s not there and those opportunities present themselves, whether it’s 30 yards on a scramble down the sidelines or a 30-yard completion, it’s 30 yards. So a lot of things to improve, but getting those guys operating in the 4-minute was really good.”

Chestnut separates: Tyjae Spears was the lead back again as expected, and the Vikings did a pretty good job bottling him up with one exception: A great 33-yard run angling to the right sideline during which he had good blocking and took care of his one man by jumping over safety Lewis Cine.

But Julius Chestnut was the running back of the game, and with the injured Hassan Haskins among the Titans who didn’t play the strong showing by Chestnut could help impact the roster selections at the position. Haskins has a felony charge from a domestic incident hanging over him, with a court appearance scheduled for Aug, 30, the day after rosters are trimmed to 53.

Chestnut picked up great blocks from Reggie Roberson and Thomas Odukoya on a 55-yard run that looked similar to Spears’ big gain. He also dragged a pile 12 yards in the red zone and caught Malik Willis’ lone TD pass.

He finished with 13 carries for 98 yards and a TD and the 1-yard TD catch. He also showed up on special teams with an assist on a tackle playing on all four core units.

It was impressive as the Vikings' defense, first team and well beyond, bottled up the Titans run game during the two joint practices.

Special teams: The first-team kickoff unit was Trey Wolff, Chris Moore, Josh Thompson, Mike Brown, Tre Avery, Shy Carter, Matthew Jackson, Otis Reese, Chance Campbell, Chestnut and Sam Okuayinonu.

The first team punt cover unit was Matthew Jackson as one gunner and I’m virtually certain Josh Thompson as the other. Ryan Stonehouse, Morgan Cox, Josh Whyle, Ben Niemann, Campbell, Chestnut, Okonkwo, Brown and McMath.

The first punt return unit was Kyle Phillips with Moore, Thompson, Westbrook-Ikhine and McMath pressing and Chestnut, Jackson, Niemann, Campbell, Jack Gibbens, and Reese.

I only got nine of the 11 on kick return: Kearis Jackson, Moore, Gibbens, Brown, Reese, Whyle, Niemann, Chestnut and Trevon Wesco.

Guys who are three for four there: Campbell, who’s a roster lock, Thompson and Brown who could be battling for one spot, Chestnut, who enhances his value if he’s good there after a week with just one special team snap as well as the veteran linebacker Niemann and the undrafted rookie Matthew Jackson.

The second offensive line: The Titans' backup offensive line was on the field for eight sacks in the preseason opener.

It fared far better in Minnesota, keeping Willis clean for the most part and making room for Chestnut and Willis.

Left to right it was Jaelyn Duncan, Joran Roos, Corey Levin, Xavier Newman and Justin Murray.

Later we saw Zack Johnson, Andrew Rupcich, John Leglue, Jimmy Murray and Justin Murray

Willis was sacked twice in the game.

Vrabel said the first line was in a little longer than he would have liked, but it took them a while to get going. The Titans drove 70 yards in nine plays to their first touchdown on a drive that spilled into the second quarter. The first unit came out after that, so it was on the field for three series and 15 plays a week after one series took 12.

Caleb Murphy: The undrafted rookie free agent was off-the-charts with his production at D-II Ferris State. But through the early stages of camp, his flashes were infrequent.

He had a sack last week in Chicago and added two more against the Vikings.

“I thought he had a good couple of days here with the exposure that he had in practice. I told him to keep that coming. Thgere are a lot of things we need to clean up, but certainly some good pressures there by Caleb. … There are some awareness things that need to improve. I think he’s shown the ability to pass rush in certain levels, to have some moves that work, reduce the surface area, a really cool rush making an inside move on a tackle.

“But I do think there are some awareness things, bigger football picture things that he needs to continue to work on and he will. He certainly showed up today with a couple of pressures.”

Also: Teair Tart got kicked out of practice Thursday for throwing a punch and played a lot in the game. “you can work on Thursday or you can work on Saturday, you’ll work,” Vrabel said. … Eric Garror had two 11-yard punt returns, four tackles and a pass defensed. …Tyreque Jones was the Titans' leading tackler with seven. …The Titans had seven passes defensed by seven different players.

Injuries: Kyle Philips left the game with a knee injury suffered on a punt return. The second punt returner and kick returner/receiver, Kearis Jackson, also left the game with a knee injury. And Duncan was taken off to be evaluated for a concussion.

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