Titans, Malik Willis Rout Starter-less Patriots in Preseason Finale

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Titans hammered the Patriots Friday night at Nissan Stadium, 23-7 in a game that wasn’t nearly that close and didn't feature a single New England starter.

And Malik Willis, vying to solidify the backup quarterback job, did some quality work along the way engineering a 368-yard effort that included 211 passing yards during which the Titans held the ball for 38 minutes and 38 seconds. 

Julius Chestnut
  Julius Chestnut scores/ Angie Flatt

He hit Julius Chestnut and Kearis Jackson with scoring passes.

He also, unfortunately, threw two interceptions, one a low attempt behind Josh Whyle that bounced off the tight end and caromed to linebacker Calvin Munson and another that hit Joe Giles-Harris in front of Mason Kinsey when it needed to go over the linebacker. It was an easy play for Giles-Harrison.

“He competed, I loved it,” Mike Vrabel said of Willis. “Got to eliminate the mistakes, I think that the one throw to Josh, I thought that the protection kind of dictated that throw and the miss and then the other one you’ve just got to make a better decision. I love what he was able to do after that and just competed and finished and kept his eyes downfield and just got to take care of the football.”

Willis connected on 15 of 20 passes including 14 of his last 15 for 211 yards with the wo touchdowns and the two picks and two sacks. His 102.3 passer rating was his best of the preseason.

Just seven of Willis' 19 targets (one pass was a throwaway) and six of his 15 completions were to receivers, and they accounted for 117 of the passing yards.

Ryan Tannehill started and handed off three times in a three-and-out series. Will Levis warmed up but was doubtful with the quad strain he suffered last week in the second joint practice in Minnesota and did not play.

Most expect the Titans to keep three quarterbacks and Levis is a definite. We’ll know for sure by Tuesday afternoon when the roster must be trimmed to 53. 

Willis said he's become faster in dealing with mistakes.

"I think the most important thing has been really figuring out those mistakes and trying to correct them, and not taking weeks and months to correct something," he said. "Maybe taking a few moments and understanding what’s trying to get put towards me and how can I fix it."

Kicking concern: The Titans got four field goal chances for their new kicker, Michael Badgley. 

He hit a 44-yarder off the left upright, hit from 27, missed a 39-yarder wide left and hit from 33.

The Patriots spent a fourth-round pick on Chad Ryland out of Maryland who kicked two touchbacks and an extra point. They also have veteran Nick Folk. If one of them comes free, he should be a Titans candidate btu there will be plenty of options out there next week and Badgley said he doesn’t know what the Titans are thinking. 

"You've got to make them," Vrabel said. "But I thought he bounced back and we'll take a look at it and we'll work through his performance and see what that looked like and go from there just like we will everybody else. But disappointed and I know he would have liked to have that one back. It's unfortunate."

Receivers: Colton Dowell led all Titans receivers with 37 snaps, 10 more than Tre’Shaun Harrison per numbers put out by Turron Davenport. Vrbel said it was in part because Dowell didn’t play last week, because of what I reported was a minor abdominal injury.

“It was cool to be able to watch him run through a couple of catches, and have a good day, just the consistency and the volume and a lot of the details for these young receivers is the thing that I keep seeing. But I thought it was a good game for him, an important game for him. He had a good week of practice. We’ll see when we look at the film but I would say continue on that path and clean up some of the little details.but it was good to see him show up down the field. 

Dowell had a very nice 30-yard catch down the left side where he said he thought he was going to escape for a touchdown, plus a 19-yard grab.

He’s competing for a spot behind DeAndre Hopkins, Treylon Burks, Kyle Philips, Chris Moore and very likely Nick Westbrook-Ikhine. Burks and Philips are both out with knee injuries that could keep them out of the opener and beyond.

Harrison was next in line with Kinsey, who didn’t play much on offense, and Kearis Jackson who caught a 26-yard TD.

Punt returns: Jackson was the punt returned for the first four Patriots punts, fair catching two, watching one go out of bounds and taking a touchback.

Vrabel said he may have been nitpicking but thought one of the touchbacks was returnable. Mason Kinsey got two chances, returning one for 7 yards. Jackson was reinserted for the final chance, which came from the very back of the Titans' end zone, and Jackson zipped up the middle with that one for 16 yards.

The Titans probably need a punt returner for opening day with Philips hurt. Last week cornerback Eric Garror had two 11-yard returns. I'd say Jackson needs to make it as a receiver not just a returner, and same for Kinsey. This makes me lean Garror, who looks to be the final corner.

Gunners: Ryan Stonehouse only punted twice and the Titans used two undrafted rookie free agents as their gunners, Matthew Jackson and Anthony Kendall. J.J. Taylor fielded Stonehouses second punt 3 yards deep in the end zone and managed to get to the 3-yard line before Jackson brought him down. 

Elijah Molden also had a special teams tackle.

Big play: Denico Autry showed monster effort in strip-sacking Bailey Zappe in the first quarter and Jayden Peevy scooped it and returned in 8 yards to set up the Titans for Badgley's 27-yard field goal.

Injuries: Daniel Brunskill left the game with a knee injury and Whyle left with an ankle.

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