Epic Debut for Will Levis Changes Titans' Tone

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The best quarterback ever to wear the Houston Oilers oil derrick logo was at Nissan Stadium, one of an expected 170 franchise alumni expected to watch the Titans play the Falcons in throwback uniforms.

Warren Moon may have seen the organization's next great quarterback's debut, with Will Levis wearing the same threads while throwing four touchdowns in his NFL debut, a 28-23 win.

"Very impressive performance by Will in his first start," Moon told me by text. "He showed great poise in the pocket, nice pace and command of the huddle and showed off his big arm several times for explosive plays. Excellent confidence booster game for Will and the team."

Oct 29, 2023; Nashville, Tennessee, USA; Tennessee Titans quarterback Will Levis (8) throws a pass just before getting hit by Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle David Onyemata (90) during the second half at Nissan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports
Will Levis/ © Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

Did Levis remind Moon, a Pro Football Hall of Famer of anybody?

"A young Terry Bradshaw," he said, pointing to a four-time Super Bowl champion and a fellow Hall of Famer.

The rookie quarterback picked 33rd out of Kentucky, let it fly in his debut shoving aside questions about decision-making and accuracy that clung to him as he came into the league. He became just the third player to throw four scoring passes in his NFL debut, joining the Titans Marcus Mariota and Pro Football Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton.

Levis hit DeAndre Hopkins from 47, 16 and 61 yards and Nick Westbrook-Ikhine from 33 yards for TDs. The four passes accounted for 66 percent of his 238 yards on 19-for-29 passing. He didn’t throw an interception, was sacked only twice and posted a 130.5 passer rating.

“It brings life to the whole team when you see how he was playing,” said Harold Landry, who had two of the Titans’ six sacks.

All those alumni had to return home thinking there was a new reason to stay latched onto their old team at the start of a new era.

"This is a dream come true for sure," Levis said. "But we have, what is it, what time is it right now? I've got 12 minutes to celebrate it before we're onto Pittsburgh as (Mike) Vrabel says. So I've dreamed of this moment as a kid, my entire life. If you can just touch the field in an NFL game let alone get a win, it's incredible."

Given the team’s 2-4 record coming in, Ryan Tannehill’s high ankle sprain, the subsequent talk of rotating Levis with Malik Willis and the trade of Kevin Byard it had been a strained and awkward lead-up to the game. There still could be outgoing veterans before Tuesday afternoon's trade deadline -- It'd be wise to keep Hopkins if Levis already has this sort of connection with him -- but the future should feel a lot better to fans of the franchise after this even if some familiar names move.

“He threw the ball, huh?” Derrick Henry said. “He played out of his mind. It was good to see because he worked so hard. I could tell he was locked in all week. Throughout the week, through practice, he was all excited. (It was good) to see it come together for him and the offense, and us being able to finish drives and make some explosive plays.”

The young quarterback’s quick release and arm strength were on full display.

The fourth touchdown was simply remarkable. 

By design, Levis faked a handoff, then dropped six steps while moving hard to his right as Westbrook-Ikhine ran his route, ultimately outrunning safety Jessie Bates. With two defenders bearing down on him, Levis snapped the throw off from his back foot as he had no opportunity to step into it. And from outside the right hashmarks at the 44-yard line, he threw a picture-perfect ball to NWI running vertically through the left side of the end zone. The 61-yard pass went a lot further than that.

It was a special throw in a special game.

Even if he lives up to the dreams the Titans had for him when they traded up for him on April 28 and the hopes he creates in fans with the excellent debut, Levis is likely to have some tough times. But with this performance and that throw, he set a bar for the possibilities. 

Mariota wasn't throwing deep strikes in his four-TD premier -- his passes were 52, 12, 4 and 1 yard and the long one covered about 10 air yards. In his second game, he was sacked seven times and completed 56.8 percent of his passes with two TDs.

We have to go back 24 regular season games to find the last time the Titans scored 28 points, on Jan. 9, 2022 in Week 18 of the 2021 season, a 28-25 win at Houston. That’s also the last time a QB for the team had a better passer rating, with Ryan Tannehill at 138.9.

The Titans played to formula against the Falcons, as Henry turned 22 carries into 101 yards and they ran 36 times for 149, a 4.1-yard average. Levis didn’t have to carry them but could win with efficient and opportunistic play, and the defense re-emerged to sack Desmond Ridder five times and second-half replacement Taylor Heinicke once.  Atlanta's offense was very disjointed and didn't find the end zone until the fourth quarter.

Nick Folk was 18-for-18 on field goals coming into the game, and he was 18-for-18 going out, not called on for anything but four extra points and five kickoffs.

The Titans' offensive red-zone struggles weren’t really an issue – they scored the one time they were there when Levis hit Hopkins over the middle and he worked his way in finishing the 16-yarder with a spin move. But the offense did its damage throwing over the red zone. Levis’ three longest throws were three of the 10 longest air-yard passes in the NFL this season.

Levis also added to the Titans’ short-yardage conversion arsenal. The Titans converted a couple of third-and-1s with 3-yard Levis gains as Trevon Wesco gave him a shove to assist.

Hopkins went out of his way to ensure the play-designer and caller would not be a forgotten piece of the mix.

“You’ve got to thank Tim Kelly and all those guys, the whole offensive staff, with getting (Levis) ready, with getting him prepared,” said Hopkins, who is 23 yards away from matching Robert Woods team-leading receiving yardage from 2022. “Obviously, he’s a very talented quarterback. Confident. Plays the game like he’s been here before. Tim K and those guys did a great job of being prepared.”

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