PITTSBURGH (AP)It took all of four quarters for Will Levis to offer a glimpse of why the Tennessee Titans were so high on him in the draft.
Throwing for four touchdowns in your debut – three of which came on the kind of downfield heaves that left scouts in awe – will do that.
Levis and the Titans (3-4) don’t have much time to prep for an encore. Tennessee visits Pittsburgh (4-3) on Thursday night with a chance to prove their electric win over Atlanta wasn’t a fluke but a sign of things to come.
It’s a game Levis circled when the schedule came out even though he was buried on the depth chart at the time. Not anymore. Ryan Tannehill is expected to miss a second straight game with a sprained right ankle, meaning Levis will run onto the Acrisure Stadium turf as the starter for now … and quite possibly for good.
“I know that their fans are going to come out, and it’s going to be a nice environment,” Levis said. “So I mean, we’re ready to handle it and just looking forward to going, taking it all in and then just do my thing.”
That “thing” is stretching the field with his arm. He’s certainly caught the attention of the Steelers, who have dominated rookie quarterbacks through the years, but also found themselves on the wrong side of a 30-6 blowout loss to Houston and second overall pick C.J. Stroud on Oct. 1.
“He throws that ball, it’s a pretty ball, gets there fast,” Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said of Levis, later adding, “he’s not afraid.”
Levis will be facing a secondary missing All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who is out after injuring his hamstring in the first quarter of a loss to Jacksonville on Sunday.
The Steelers could experiment a bit with Fitzpatrick sidelined, though what happens on the back end of the defense likely depends on what happens up front, where Pittsburgh and the edge rush tandem of T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith will try to wreak their unique brand of havoc.
“You have to do something so (Levis) doesn’t feel comfortable,” Austin said.
Comfort – literally and figuratively – has been elusive for Steelers starting quarterback Kenny Pickett. The second-year starter left Sunday’s loss to Jacksonville late in the first half after taking a shot to the ribs and while he expects to play, he’s likely not close to 100%, though he stressed he doesn’t plan to use the injury as a “crutch” while the NFL’s 30th-ranked offense tries to find something – anything – to get going.
“It’s not about scripting (plays), it’s not about anything,” said Pickett, who has five touchdown passes in 200 attempts on the season, or one more than Levis had in 29 attempts against the Falcons. “It’s about us playing and being better than we’re doing right now. ”It’s not where it needs to be. It has to get better.”
TAPE ON LEVIS
While the Falcons had only tape of Levis from Tennessee’s preseason opener in the Titans’ offense, Pittsburgh has a full game to break down and study the rookie for anything to exploit. Levis knows that.
“Not that it’s going to change necessarily how I play, but just something to keep in mind,” Levis said.
Levis, matching Pro Football Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton (1961) and Marcus Mariota (2015 with Tennessee) by throwing four TDs for the most in a quarterback’s NFL debut, certainly gave the Titans a much-needed boost of confidence snapping a two-game skid.
Steelers rookie cornerback Joey Porter Jr. will make his second straight start and this time, it won’t be because of an injury to veteran Levi Wallace. Porter has perhaps been Pittsburgh’s best defensive back over the past month as his playing time has increased, one of the reasons he’s leapfrogged Wallace on the depth chart.
“He’s doing the things we want him to do,” Austin said. “We feel comfortable now that he’s able to handle everything. So that’s why he’s the guy moving forward.”
Porter and the rest of Pittsburgh’s secondary will have to deal with Levis and star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who hauled in three touchdown passes for the second time in his career against Atlanta.
The Titans are coming off their best performance this season after piling up six sacks. Two-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons had two, including a strip-sack, and outside linebacker Harold Landry had two as well in his best game since tearing his ACL just before the 2022 season.
Simmons credited the bye with helping the Titans’ defensive front to hit the reset button. The Titans now have 21 sacks this season. Denico Autry leads the team with five sacks followed by Simmons with 4 1/2. Landry now is up to four. Outside linebacker Arden Key has 2 1/2.
“I honestly feel like when we rushing together, no one can stop us up front,” Simmons said. “When we’re on the same page, we playing together … I honestly feel like this week we can just build off of last week.”
AP Pro Football Writer Teresa Walker contributed to this report.
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