Titans must protect rookie Levis if they want him to develop

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A promising 11-play opening drive that covered 64 yards to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 9-yard line ended with a thud when defensive lineman Vita Vea sacked Tennessee Titans rookie quarterback Will Levis on third-and-goal Sunday.

Levis hopped back up after being thrown to the ground and tossed the ball to the official before straightening his helmet and jogging off the field. The Titans (3-6) had to settle for a 38-yard field goal by Nick Folk and failed to score a touchdown in the 20-6 loss.

Opposing defenses have gotten 33 hits on Levis and sacked him 10 times in his three NFL starts. If the Titans can't protect their young quarterback with so much promise, as he became just the third player with four passing touchdowns in his first career game in Week 8, it begs the question of will this stunt Levis' development?

Levis doesn't think so.

"You can't let those factors determine how you think about a play or process it," Levis said. "There are times when there are answers that you can turn to if there's pressure or it's coming a little faster."

Titans coach Mike Vrabel said Levis' willingness to stand in the pocket and not stare at the pass rush showed toughness. Levis has thrown for 699 yards and two interceptions, but he also hasn't thrown a touchdown since his debut. Still, when he has time to make a throw, Levis' 10.5 air yards per attempt are more than any other quarterback over the last three weeks.

Vrabel acknowledged the idea of constant hits causing quarterbacks to become gun-shy. But he doesn't see it being an issue for Levis, the quarterback they traded up to select with the No. 33 overall pick in April.

"I don't have any concern about that," Vrabel said. "I don't see any discouragement. But we have to continue to protect him and develop him and have him help us and let them throw the football."

Former Houston Texans quarterback David Carr is the best example of a quarterback's growth getting stunted from constantly being under duress. Carr was sacked an NFL record 76 times as a rookie in 2002. He was sacked more than any other quarterback in 2004 (49) and 2005 (68) as well.

Despite being the No. 1 overall pick in 2002, Carr never made it to a second contract. Carr was released by the Texans in 2007 when they acquired Matt Schaub from the Atlanta Falcons. Carr had been sacked 249 times during his tenure in Houston.

There are other cases where the constant pressure galvanized a young player such as Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow. Burrow was sacked 32 times his rookie season, the third-most through 11 games. A low hit caused Burrow to miss the final six games of that season after he suffered a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee along with damage to his PCL and meniscus.

Burrow came back the following season and led the league in completion percentage (70.4) and yards per pass attempt (8.9), but he also led the league in sacks taken (51). The Titans sacked Burrow nine times in their divisional playoff matchup that season, tying the Kansas City Chiefs (Jan. 16, 1994) and the Cleveland Browns (Jan. 3, 1987), for the most sacks in a playoff game. Burrow still managed to lead Cincinnati to the Super Bowl.

The Titans hope Levis can withstand the early barrage of hits and pressures. The 10 times Levis has been sacked over the last three weeks ties him with Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson for the third-most over that span.

The grit Levis has shown after taking so many hits has gained admiration from his teammates.

"I have a ton of respect for him hanging back there and being tough," lineman Peter Skoronski said. "You feel disappointed seeing a young guy get hit like that. He needs his time to get the ball to the receivers."

One thing the Titans can hang their hat on is how Levis was similarly challenged physically at Kentucky.

While at Kentucky, Levis was sacked 58 times in two seasons, tied for 13th-most in the FBS over that span. Levis played through a shoulder/AC sprain and a dislocated middle finger in his non-throwing hand and turf toe before missing the final game of the season and opting out of Kentucky's bowl game to prepare for the NFL.

"It's never going to be easy in this game," Levis said. "No one is 100% healthy. Everyone is tired, and you're going out there going to war, and then you gotta do it again in a week. It's part of the game. I just try to focus on what I can control."

Titans offensive coordinator Tim Kelly wouldn't say the lack of protection up front limits the plays that he calls, but it has caused problems with how they execute the plays.

Second-year receiver Kyle Philips admitted at times he has to cut routes short knowing that Levis has to get the ball off a little quicker to avoid getting hit.

"It's definitely an understanding just through the flow of the game," Philips said. "You just gotta speed your routes up a little bit."

Levis said it comes down to going out there and just playing ball. He pointed to how things can be different from what's drawn up when the action is live. But he works with the receivers to get a good feel for the timing and spacing of routes.

"If you're in the huddle with a guy that's shaken, you get a little nervous," right guard Daniel Brunskill said. "You love to have a guy out there with [Levis'] confidence, it's amazing what he can do. He's going to do really good things."

The Titans hit the road Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS) to take on the AFC South-leading Jacksonville Jaguars (6-3) at EverBank Stadium. It'll be the first time the Titans face the Jaguars since Week 18 last season, where the Jaguars knocked off Tennessee with a playoff spot on the line for both teams.