By TERESA M. WALKER
AP Pro Football Writer
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Tennessee Titans have a competition for the job backing up Ryan Tannehill, and coach Mike Vrabel has made it very clear they want rookie Malik Willis throwing more.
Vrabel pulled Willis two plays into Tennessee’s first drive of the third quarter after the quarterback scrambled on the second play for 17 yards in the Titans’ 23-10 loss Thursday night to Baltimore. Willis showed off his scrambling ability running five times for 38 yards with a touchdown, and his strong arm was on display with a 48-yard toss to Racey McMath.
An impressive debut that had the rookie trending with video snippets of his highlights all over social media. Yet Willis finished with only one more completion than rushes, going 6 of 11 for 107 yards while being sacked twice.
And the Titans lost.
“We wanted him to rip it, and he didn’t,” Vrabel said Friday. “And so I’m sure he’ll rip it the next time that he has an opportunity.”
The Titans traded up to draft Willis at No. 86 overall out of Liberty in April, and they’ve been giving the rookie as much experience as possible this preseason. Willis has had opportunities to work with the second-team offense during training camp, and he started against Baltimore over Logan Woodside, who has been Tannehill’s backup the past two seasons.
Vrabel said they knew the Ravens would give them multiple looks and pressures. The challenge for Willis is what Vrabel called the “fine line” between moving around inside the pocket tapping into the drills they practice every day and working through his reads to find receivers.
“And then there’s times where we’re going to want him to go and be an athlete,” Vrabel said. “And so there’s some things we have to work on with … certainly the timing and what he’s seeing when those throws depend on it. And then there’s other times that I thought he really made some nice plays down the field and and kept his eyes down the field.”
One came on the play to McMath to set up a field goal in the second quarter. Willis also completed a sidearm throw around a defender to tight end Tommy Hudson. Willis took a sack just before halftime when he held onto the ball too long while in the pocket, then threw the ball away a couple of plays later.
Vrabel said it’s just execution and where Willis’ eyes are progressing through his reads. The work continues Saturday in camp, and the Titans also have a pair of joint practices with the first Wednesday with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ahead of their exhibition Aug. 20 in Nashville.
“This is all happening pretty quick and much quicker with more consequences in the game than what it’s been in practice,” Vrabel said.
Woodside has had little competition in backing up Tannehill the past two seasons, playing in 11 games. The quarterback drafted in the seventh round out of Toledo in 2018 by Cincinnati spent the first three weeks on the Titans’ practice squad in 2018 and all of 2019 injured on the practice squad.
Against the Ravens, Woodside threw more than twice as many passes as Willis going 14 of 24 for 102 yards. But he was intercepted twice, the first at the Ravens 2 on a pass to Terry Godwin, who Vrabel said could’ve helped break up that interception.
“Ultimately, the guy that has the ball is responsible for taking care of it,” Vrabel said.