Titans back home to face similarly struggling Panthers

AP photo by Phelan M. Ebenhack / Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel, center, leaves the field after the first half of last Sunday's game against the host Jacksonville Jaguars.
AP photo by Phelan M. Ebenhack / Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel, center, leaves the field after the first half of last Sunday's game against the host Jacksonville Jaguars.

NASHVILLE — Will Levis and Bryce Young never faced off as college stars in the Southeastern Conference.

The two quarterbacks will finally meet as NFL rookies Sunday, when Young and his Carolina Panthers (1-9) visit Levis and the Tennessee Titans (3-7) in Music City.

"I've definitely watched him from afar and been really impressed with his whole process, and he's a heck of a quarterback," Levis said of Young, the 2021 Heisman Trophy winner as a sophomore at Alabama. "Was really fun watching him, comparing myself to the other quarterbacks in the draft class. (He) did some great things on Saturdays. He's been doing some great things on Sundays."

The No. 1 overall pick in April's draft, Young has taken a beating that cost him one start, and he has nearly as many interceptions (eight) as touchdown passes (nine).

First-year Panthers coach Frank Reich knows whether the 5-foot-10, 204-pound Young could handle a pounding at this level was a big question coming into the draft.

"He physically is one tough dude," Reich said. "Never wants to come out, can take hits. I think that's a credit to his physical toughness and his tenacity. Yeah, that's been week in and week out. He doesn't flinch."

The Titans traded up to No. 33 to select Levis out of Kentucky with the second pick of the second round, making him the fourth quarterback taken this year. This will be the fifth start for Levis after a sprained ankle sidelined veteran Ryan Tannehill.

Three of Levis' first four starts came on the road. He is 73-of-124 passing for 857 yards with six touchdowns and only two interceptions despite being sacked 12 times. In his NFL debut in the seventh week of the season, Levis doubled the number of touchdown passes Tannehill had thrown through the first six games.

In that span, Levis (6-4, 229) has shown off his strong arm with four touchdowns passes of 30 yards or more, matching Tua Tagovailoa of the Miami Dolphins for most in the NFL since the eighth week. That includes a 43-yarder to DeAndre Hopkins in Tennessee's 34-14 road loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars last Sunday.

Meanwhile, Young is 83-of-137 for 716 yards with three touchdown passes and four interceptions while being sacked 20 times in that span. Young has been sacked 36 times already, including seven times in last Sunday's 33-10 loss to the Dallas Cowboys.

"I have to be better, regardless of what's going on, or I have to be able to control and manage stuff, still try to find positives," Young said. "We all take that mindset as a unit. Obviously, we want to make sure that there's going to be great units. There's going to be great players in the NFL."

Levis is 1-3 as a starter; Young has the same record in his past four games.

The NFL did the Titans no favor with a schedule that kept them away from Nashville so often during the first 2 1/2 months of the season. They have played just once at Nissan Stadium over the past seven weeks, and they even lost the Oct. 15 game against the Baltimore Ravens in London, where Tennessee was designated the host.

They couldn't be happier for back-to-back games at home, where they're 3-0. After playing the Panthers, they'll welcome the rival Indianapolis Colts for an AFC South Division game next weekend.

"Hopefully coming back home this weekend, we could get back on the right track and keep building off that," said Jeffery Simmons, who in last week's loss to the Jaguars became the first NFL defensive lineman with a touchdown catch since Miami's Christian Wilkins against the New York Jets on Dec. 19, 2021.

One thing that would help the Titans is to be able to get the ball to two-time NFL rushing champion Derrick Henry more often. When he has had at least 22 carries this season, Tennessee has won. When the Titans had just 38 offensive plays last week, Henry had a season-low 10 rushes.

Staying on the field would help, though the Titans keep hurting themselves with too many penalties, dropped passes and sacks allowed. Henry's only two 100-yard rushing games have come at home.

"My main focus is on doing my job effectively enough to help us win in any way possible, whether that's me taking over or being effective in other ways," Henry said.

The Titans have lost 14 of their past 17 games, a rough stretch that started after their most recent road win — against the Green Bay Packers on Nov. 17, 2022. Tennessee's struggles even led to Mike Vrabel having to answer questions about his job security.

Vrabel, whose time with the Titans has yielded two division titles, three playoff berths and an AFC championship game appearance, is in his sixth season.

As for Reich, with the Panthers guaranteed a sixth straight losing season, he could be on the hot seat even in his first year. Team owner David Tepper has been quick to fire coaches in the past, including letting go of Matt Rhule, Reich's predecessor, after 2 1/2 seasons.

"We all know what we signed up for when we get into this business. So I'm comfortable with that," said Reich, who was fired by the Indianapolis Colts nine games into the 2022 season, his fifth with that team. "Just keep working, put your head down, and focus on your work. I don't think that's a distraction during the week."

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