With Will Levis comes surprises.
We were all surprised when the much-hyped Kentucky quarterback wasn’t selected in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft. Then we were surprised when Levis was beat out by Malik Willis for the Titans backup role out of training camp and the preseason. And, now, even the biggest Levis supporters would admit they were surprised by his four-touchdown professional debut in Week 8’s win over the Falcons.
There were three plays I noticed on film that were especially encouraging from Levis’ first NFL start.
Before I get to one score in particular, I’m starting with a throw that appeared to be nondescript or even a negative play but demonstrated quality quarterback traits for Levis as he charges into Week 9 with plenty of momentum.
It came on a 3rd-and-8 in the first quarter. From inside a collapsing pocket, Levis didn’t panic and ripped a fastball to Kyle Philips for six yards near the sideline. The intricacies of this connection were impressive for a rookie quarterback on his fifth professional drop back.
Levis had an edge rusher fly around the corner in his line of sight while looking left. There was also a defensive back driving back left guard Peter Skoronski into his lap — minimal room to step into the throw. Because of the width of the outside rush from the edge defender, Levis had a clear lane to roll left. Unlike the vast majority of rookie quarterbacks, particularly those in their first start, Levis didn’t vacate the pocket at the first sight of an opening.
Despite not being able to adequately step into the throw, Levis released it anyway, and was able to generate enough velocity to get to Philips before it was undercut by the cornerback in coverage. The physical and mental traits Levis demonstrated on that play are far more vital to his long-term development than not moving the chains on that play.
There was another unsuccessful play against Atlanta I loved from Levis.
All-out pressure look before the snap from the Falcons that saw two defenders sink into coverage, making it not a blitz at all. Levis started by peeking down the middle of the field, which moved the middle of the field safety toward a vertical route between the hashmark and the numbers.
With Calais Campbell in his grill, Levis flipped his head to a vertical route down the left sideline and delivered a perfect pass to Treylon Burks, who was actually trailing the cornerback assigned to him in coverage.
The ball led the second-year down the field and hit him in the hands, but one of his feet were ultimately out of bounds.
Another demonstration of pocket-passing willingness from the athletic Levis, smart eye manipulation of the deep middle safety, and, vitally, quality ball placement down the field.
Now, his first touchdown to DeAndre Hopkins was not a great throw. Probably a bad throw actually, well inside on a throw that typically needs to be pushed down the boundary to be completed. Not everything from Levis was Pro Bowl veteran level.
The second touchdown to Hopkins was a simple shallow cross with a linebacker in man coverage. That’s going to be a win for Hopkins every single time. The third was a blown coverage and a layup of a long ball for Levis.
But I’ve saved the best for last. Levis’ final touchdown of the afternoon was a Pro Bowl veteran-level display. A sprint right for Levis after catching the snap. He stared at a stick route near the perimeter to draw the attention of multiple defenders to that route.
Then, Levis put his foot in the ground, and with two Falcons defenders converging on him, while fading away, he delivered a gorgeous touch pass deep down the field to Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, who had run a gorgeous double move.
Levis was hit as he released the football from the 45-yard line and the ball had enough juice to get to sail over the defensive back in coverage and into the arms of Westbrook-Ikine deep into the end zone. Big. Time. Throw.
The Titans coaching staff did a marvelous job providing Levis with plenty of easy, open looks in this contest too. But despite no previous regular-season experience, the second-round pick made some first-round caliber plays in the Titans’ Week 8 victory.
The game-sealing touchdown was, quite clearly, a positive from Levis. Franchise-caliber throw. But don’t be surprised that a failed conversion on a first-quarter third down or an incompletion in the second quarter were actually steps in the right direction for Levis.