Titans need QB Malik Willis to 'continue to progress' after struggling through first three starts

Malik Willis' first three starts haven't offered a host of big pass plays, but the third-round rookie continues to grow with each snap.

On Tuesday, Titans head coach Mike Vrabel noted that Willis has been showing signs of improvement in each start.

"I think just overall just comfort level, being quicker with progression, not holding in, not waiting things out," Vrabel said. "Knowing that you don't have all day. Being good operationally. I thought he made some good decisions, some really good decisions to pull, when to give it, extend. I thought when he was decisive, he was able to get to some guys. Unfortunately, Chig (Chigoziem Okonkwo) put the one on the ground and dropped it, but he got to (Robert Woods) and he got to Nick (Westbrook-Ikhine) on third and long and he was able to get to Woods in his zone. So, there were some things there that were good, but obviously just want to continue to progress."

Willis has displayed raw abilities that could be developed in time, but his first three starts have been an unproductive mishmash of bad plays and unproductive opportunism.

During Saturday's loss to Houston -- his third start replacing a repeatedly injured Ryan Tannehill -- Willis completed 14 of 23 passes for 99 yards while throwing two late-game interceptions that sealed the contest (all career highs). He also added seven rush attempts for 43 yards and a TD.

Per NFL Research, Willis is the first rookie QB to throw for less than 100 yards in each of his first three career starts since Doug Williams in 1978 -- Williams had a season-high 311 pass yards in his fourth career start.

With Tannehill out due to an ankle injury at least until Week 18, the Titans will attempt to stop their five-game losing skid with Willis under center Thursday night against the Dallas Cowboys. To pull the upset, Tennessee needs everything to click for Willis, who has faced the NFL's highest pressure rate at 43.7 percent (min. 60 attempts).

While the Titans will need Willis to make throws at some point to keep up with the Cowboys on Thursday night, expect another hefty dose of Derrick Henry and Willis runs to open the contest.

Vrabel noted that the rookie's leadership is growing each week as he becomes more comfortable in the offense.

"I thought it was good last week," Vrabel said. "I thought he was into it. I thought he controlled the operation in practice and everything else that we were doing and in meetings and on the field and then ultimately up into the game. The leadership and everything that's, you know, whether it's Malik or anybody else, we've always tried to say that there's no restrictions on leadership. We just ask everybody to know what to do and go out and play a certain way and prepare a certain way. When you do that, you're more than welcome to lead anybody you want."

The Titans' playoff hopes continue to dwindle, but Thursday night's matchup against Dallas won't decide the AFC South race. That comes in Week 18's matchup against the Jacksonville Jaguars in a winner-take-all match. In the meantime, Willis can use Week 17 to continue to develop his game.

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