What Titans rookie QB Malik Willis said was better than what he did

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Malik Willis made small gains in preseason game No. 2.

But the Tennessee Titans rookie quarterback still had fits of indecision, ran when he didn’t have to and threw off target too often.

He played one series into the third quarter and made three electric plays that will be heavily circulated on social media but that hardly offer a full sense of his spotty effort in a 13-3 Tennessee win over the Buccaneers at Nissan Stadium.

Malik WIllis

© Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

The best thing about his night wasn’t in what he did but in what he said afterward, where he showed calm accountability and shared a clear understanding of what he is, and isn’t, doing right now and how he needs to sort through it.

“I felt a little bit more comfortable,” Willis said. “But it’s not about feeling comfortable, it’s about making it a big point to stay in the pocket when I can and not just, because I am athletic and I can get out when I want to, just to get out. It’s understanding when and when not to. That’s the biggest thing, that’s where I am a little disappointed in myself, I think I got out of there a little bit too much.

“But it’s a growing process, that’s my second preseason game, I’m not going to be too hard on myself in that regard.”

Logan Woodside was insufficient in relief again but under nearly constant heat.

The Titans' low-ranking offensive linemen have been a lot worse than the Ravens' and Buccaneers’ low-ranking pass rushers. Woodside released a deep pass as he was hit by Willington Previlon which was intended for Treylon Burks but intercepted by Don Gardner.Screen Shot 2022 08 20 at 9.01.31 PM

I don’t believe the team’s faith in Woodside has necessarily wavered.

But he’s not getting nearly as much work in practices and preseason games because of Willis and if Woodside's playbook knowledge and offensive understanding are going to translate if or when he’s called on, well training camp practices and preseason games are the time for that.

He’s no been-there, done-that guy.

The team currently lacks a viable option if Ryan Tannehill goes down with an injury.

He hasn’t missed a start since he took over as the guy during the 2019 season, and Tennessee will need the same good fortune not to wind up in big trouble.

Mike Vrabel’s won without key pieces before, but mustering up a winning game plan for a version of Willis like this one or for Woodside would be a different sort of special achievement. Such circumstances are not uncommon in the NFL.

Avoiding injury is a bit of a QB skill and Tannehill has had it while in Nashville. In addition to decreasing interceptions and elevating some new options in the passing game, the veteran QB needs to continue to show an ability to avoid the dangerous, hurtful hit.

Willis didn’t throw a pick or fumble, so ball security was a checkmark.

Several times when he decided to leave the pocket or run he evaded the first guy only to be met by a swarm of others.

He finished seven-for-17 for 80 yards with a TD and a 75.6 passer rating to go with three sacks and five carries for 42 yards.

“It’s hard to run out of the back of the pocket in this league,” Mike Vrabel said. “We’re just going to continue to coach him to step up and find guys who can help him, and then when there are opportunities, to create plays, try to do that as well.”

Two of the Titans’ three scoring drives were facilitated by short fields thanks to takeaways – a forced fumble by Lonnie Johnson that Rashad Weaver pounced on and an interception and 38-yard return by Joe Johnson.

Willis had really had three plays that showed off what he can do and what the Titans hope will become more consistent features of his game.

He shrugged out of a sack by Carl Nassib and other trouble inside the 5-yard line to move to his right and whip a sidearm pass to Dez Fitzpatrick with safety Chris Cooper closest in coverage. That was an 18-yard gain on the offense’s fifth series and was really his first play of note.

He followed it up with his best run of the game, making only a subtle move to angle a bit wider on K.J. Britt. Willis simply just glided by him and others as he turned up the right sideline for a seemingly effortless 24 yards.

“I kind of was just in the moment, I was, ‘Oh, there we go,’” he said. “And it’s not even about that part. Those are going to happen naturally. So it’s about not trying to make them happen when I have a clean pocket. That’s the whole issue – I wouldn’t say even issue, it’s a whole balance thing.

“When I have a clean pocket, when people are open downfield, I need to make that throw, I need to stand in there and climb, do whatever I need to do in order to not ask much of protection and to save my body more than anything. Those times that I do need to make a play when nobody is open, when there is pressure in the pocket and it’s right now, just being able to react. It’s just finding the balance between those two.”

On a first-and-10 from the Bucs’ 19, he held it for quite a long time and hit Hassan Haskins up the left side for a 9-yard gain. (He pumped and held it with Treylon Burks wide open and heading into space coming across the middle.)

Two plays later he had fantastic protection, made three reads and found Chig Okonkwo with a dart for his 6-yard TD.

“Everybody did their job," Willis said. "I finally stood in there for once."

Aaron Brewer said he and the team have noticed Willis’ gains.

“He took in the coaching and he applied it fast,” Brewer said. “That’s great.”

There is still some getting to know each other that can also help the cause. At times Willis was hoping to reset and throw, but targets had already started blocking and turned around. That will get better as they learn each other better.

He’s still got a long way to go with those check-downs, with staying in the pocket, with accuracy which we didn’t really address.

Thinking about him entering the game as a Tannehill injury replacement is way premature to me.

Kuharsky megaphoneHis coaches often talk about him getting one percent better each day. It’s our nature to be impatient with the results, the numbers, the production. I've tried to constantly slow myself, and you, down on that. He's so new, so raw.

We don’t often get a whole lot of thoughtful consideration about nuanced issues -- media's fault as much as players' perhaps, they have cause to be guarded.

Thankfully Willis gave people that on Saturday. Know he knows his mission.

“It’s about getting the ball from Point A to Point B without anybody messing with it,” he said.

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