November 29, 2022
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Titans’ Malik Willis, Colts’ Sam Ehlinger start first career games: What we learned

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Quarterbacks Malik Willis and Sam Ehlinger made their first NFL starts on Sunday, but only one walked away with a win. Willis, a rookie from Liberty, helped propel the Titans to a 17-10 victory over the Houston Texans with regular starter Ryan Tannehill out due to an ankle injury and illness. Meanwhile, the Colts fell 17-16 to the Washington Commanders as Ehlinger made his debut in the starting role for Indianapolis. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Ehlinger, who started in place of Matt Ryan, was overshadowed by Taylor Heinicke’s performance for Washington. Heinicke led a nine-play, 89-yard game-winning drive that culminated in a rushing touchdown with 22 seconds remaining.
  • The Colts’ second-year QB went 17-for-23 with 201 yards and zero picks or touchdowns.
  • Willis, a third-round draft pick, was 6-for-10 with 55 yards, zero touchdowns and one interception as the rushing game carried the team.
  • The Titans sit atop the AFC South with a 5-2 record, while the Colts fell to 3-4-1 heading into Week 9.

The Athletic’s instant analysis:

How does Malik Willis fit going forward?

For all the NFL media and other pundits who speculated about Willis challenging Ryan Tannehill for the starting job this season with no concept of how unrealistic that was, I hope you paid attention to his first career start. Actually, I hope for your sake you didn’t have to watch that game. But feel bad, because Willis was always a project who was going to need a “redshirt year” – and even then, there’s no telling what he will be as a finished product. For any Titans fans who had unrealistic expectations and were disappointed with what they saw Sunday, remember that it’s early. Too early for him to be a factor, and too early to give up on him as well. – Rexrode

What worked for the Titans

Devising a game plan with Willis at quarterback was sure to be a challenge for Titans offensive coordinator Todd Downing, and he did a lot of what you might expect – some QB draws, some read option plays, some screens, some bootlegs with one read at least to cut the field in half. Mostly, the ball was given to Derrick Henry. Incredibly, Henry was able to dominate the game (32 carries, 219 yards, two touchdowns) even though the Texans knew the Titans had no passing game. When Willis did drop back and take a shot downfield, he was late and behind receiver Cody Hollister for a bad interception that set up a Texans field goal. He was late a few other times, trying to make sure his target was open, a frequent sight in camp as well. He took a sack that cost the Titans a field goal try. Willis did make some plays, though, including an escape and sidearm completion to Robert Woods. He threw one pass in the second half, a bootleg incompletion. – Rexrode

The sentiments after Sam Ehlinger’s NFL debut?

“I really wanted to get this win, especially for Sam,” said Colts defensive captain DeForest Buckner. “Shoot, his competitiveness, just the way he came out today, ready to rock.”

But the Colts’ nine-point fourth-quarter lead slipped through their fingers, and the Commanders engineered an 89-yard drive in 2:17 to sneak out of Lucas Oil Stadium with a 17-16 win Sunday. Ehlinger went 17-for-23 for 201 yards and no touchdowns or no interceptions, but made a crucial “blunder” — his word — in the first half, fumbling the ball on the Commanders’ 23-yard-line.

What he did do: prove the move wasn’t a colossal mistake. Ehlinger certainly has areas he needs to improve in, but his scrambling ability gave the Colts’ offense a much-needed spark, and he threw two beauties: a 47-yard bomb to Alec Pierce — the Colts’ biggest completion of the season — and a dime in the red zone to Nyheim Hines that set the Colts up on the Commander’s 4-yard-line.

“Massive room for improvement,” he said after the loss. – Keefer

Highlights of the games

Key stats

The standout quarterback in these two games was Heinicke, who has led Washington to a 9-8 record in 17 career regular-season starts. Heinicke completed 23 of 31 passes for 279 yards with one interception, and the game-winning 1-yard touchdown run with 22 seconds remaining.

Required reading

(Photo: Bryan M. Bennett / Getty Images)





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