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Willis’ rollercoaster ride through preseason ends with 23-7 win over Patriots



Malik Willis looks downfield to throw a pass for the Tennessee Titans in their preseason win over New England. Willis was 15-of-20 for 211 yards with two touchdown passes and two interceptions. By Angie Flatt

The Tennessee Titans closed the preseason with a 23-7 victory over the New England Patriots Friday night, and now have roster decisions to make in order to pare down to 53 players by Tuesday at 3 p.m. CT.

One area where the Titans won’t have to make a hard decision, it appears, is at quarterback where it looks as if Tennessee will carry three on its 53-man roster to start the season.

With Will Levis missing his second-straight preseason game with a quadriceps injury, the Titans again turned the bulk of the quarterback duties over to Malik Willis, who came in after Ryan Tannehill executed three handoffs on the opening drive.

Willis, as he has been a lot this preseason, was up-and-down, with some very good plays and a couple of costly mistakes as well. Willis finished the game 15-of-20 passing for 211 yards with two nice touchdown throws and two interceptions.

The Titans offense started slowly, settling for two Michael Badgley field goals in the first half, before the Patriots scored their only points of the game, converting a Willis interception into the score. The pick came when Willis threw a ball wide of Josh Whyle, who was on the ground and had the ball tip off his hands and into the arms of New England’s Calvin Munson.

Willis, however, shook off the mistake, driving the Titans in position on the ensuing possession, though a Badgley miss from 39 yards thwarted the scoring chance.

But on the next possession, Willis and the offense responded just before halftime by taking the Titans 90 yards in 10 plays to put Tennessee ahead, 13-7.

It’s part of the maturing process that was not often a part of Willis’ game last year as a rookie. 

“That’s what I’m trying to do. We come off the field, and we talk to Tim (Kelly) and talk to Charles (London),” Willis said. “We try to figure out what they’re trying to do to us, and we’re trying to figure out what we’re going to do on the next drive and understand that we can keep working through it and we can come back the next time.”

Willis capped the march with a 12-yard TD throw to Julius Chestnut off a scramble drill. The quarterback admitted that last year, he might have tried to run the ball in that situation with open field in front of him, but he instead kept his eyes downfield and found Chestnut ahead of his man in single coverage.

Willis’ mettle was tested again in the second half when he was trying to loop a pass over a linebacker to Mason Kinsey, but instead found New England’s Joe Giles-Harris, who stepped right in front of the pass and never broke stride.

Tennessee’s defense forced a punt on that series to bail Willis out, and the second-year QB helped to put the game away, leading an 83-yard drive that he finished with a 26-yard touchdown throw to Kearis Jackson, another play where he vacated the pocket and found a receiver for the score.

In a rollercoaster performance that somewhat was a microcosm of his entire preseason, Willis showed enough moxie to battle through – something he said he learned the hard way last year.

“More than anything, I was trying to be perfect, and you can’t be perfect. It’s not a perfect game. The people on defense get paid too, and it’s about who continues to keep going after the mistakes and who fights the longest and the hardest,” Willis said.

Coach Mike Vrabel knows Willis is still a work in progress, but said, “I loved the way he competed. Loved it. We’ve got to eliminate the mistakes. The one there to Josh, I thought the protection kind of dictated that throw and that miss. And then the other one you just have to make a better decision..

“But I loved what he was able to do after that. He competed and finished and kept his eyes downfield.”

Sack parade

The Titans defense harassed Patriots quarterbacks throughout much of the game. Caleb Murphy, trying to make the team as an undrafted rookie to be a fourth outside linebacker, had his fourth sack of the preseason.

Michael Dwumfour, signed just before the Titans went to Minnesota last week, had two sacks, and Kyle Peko added one as well. Denico Autry and Rashad Weaver also had sacks in the game.

Waiting game

With roster cuts upcoming on Tuesday, several players who are on the bubble but helped themselves with strong preseasons are now in a wait-and-see situation.

Players like Murphy, Jackson and cornerback Eric Garror are all in position to perhaps make the initial 53-man roster as undrafted rookies.

“I’ll leave that in the coaches’ hands. I feel like I have (done well), but at the same time, good is never enough. I still have room for improvement. I’m still a rookie,” said Jackson, who handled the bulk of the return chores with Kyle Philips out and also caught the 26-yard TD pass.

Murphy made the most of his chances rushing the passer, leading the Titans with four sacks in preseason.

“I can’t say what the coaches say I’ve showed. I”m not putting any predictions out there, but I hope (I’ve showed) a lot,” said Murphy, who played at Division II Ferris State..

Kicker carousel

Badgley, signed just this week by the Titans as their latest kicker candidate, may or may not be the guy after some struggles Friday night.

Badgley clanged a 44-yard attempt off the upright and had it bounce through on his first kick. He then made a 27-yard chip shot before missing a 39-yarder. Late in the game, he was good from 33 yards, making him 3-of-4 on the day.

“I missed it. Simple as that,” Badgley said of the 39-yard miss.” I know I can definitely kick better than that. Today wasn’t the greatest display. Obviously, some of them went in off the uprights. You’re never gonna be mad at those, but I know I can kick better than that. I made some kicks and kicked off well, but I know I’m better than that.”

Vrabel said the Titans would continue the evaluation process – meaning that if a better option comes along, they could look at another kicker before the regular season begins.

“We’ve got to make them. But he bounced back. We’ll take a look at it. We’ll work through his performance and see what that looked like and go from there, just like we will with everybody else,” Vrabel said.

Injuries

Starting right guard Daniel Brunskill suffered a knee injury in the first quarter and did not return. Xavier Newman replaced him with the first team.

Tight end Josh Whyle suffered an ankle injury in the second half of the game.

Tight end Chig Okonkwo and outside linebacker Arden Key, neither of whom practiced Wednesday, dressed for the game.