NASHVILLE – The Titans face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
Here's a look at six things to watch in the contest:
Will Levis Time
Rookie Will Levis is the team's starting quarterback moving forward, after Coach Mike Vrabel made the news official this week. In his first two starts, Levis has completed 41-of-68 passes for 500 yards, with four touchdowns and just one interception, and a 96.4 rating. In Tampa, he'll have a chance to become the first rookie in franchise history to throw for at least 225 yards in his first three starts. Levis has unlocked the downfield passing game so far, with 10 plays of 20-plus yards or more in the past two games. Opportunities could be there against the Buccaneers, who are allowing 24.8 points per game and 426.0 yards per game during their four-game losing streak.
Protect the QB
The Titans, of course, are going to need to give Levis time to work by protecting him better. Through eight games, the Titans have the second-highest pressure rate allowed in the NFL. The challenge this week gets even tougher because of injuries up front. Tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere and guard Daniel Brunskill were both injured in Pittsburgh, and they've been ruled out for Sunday's game. Tackle Chris Hubbard will be back in the lineup at right tackle, and Dillon Radunz is also in line to return to the mix against a Buccaneers defense that isn't afraid to send extra rushers. The Buccaneers have 21 sacks on the season, with NT Vita Vea (3.5) and LB Shaquil Barrett (3) leading the way.
The Titans have talked plenty this week about fixing the run defense after allowing 166 yards on the ground the last time out. The reality is it's been a struggle for weeks – the Titans have allowed 159.5 rushing yards per game since Week 5, which is last in the NFL. Shoddy tackling and missed assignments have led to the issues. It's time for the Titans to get back to stuffing the run. This Sunday provides a good chance to get back on track: Tampa Bay is averaging just 69.5 rushing yards per game since Week 5, which is last in the NFL.
Defense vs Tampa Bay's WRs
The biggest challenge Tampa Bay will provide to the Titans defense will be stopping the Buccaneers talented receivers, from the big and physical Mike Evans to the quick and crafty Chris Godwin. The Titans need to be solid in the secondary, but it's time for the pass rush to get cranked up again as well. The Titans are also due to make some plays, as they have just two INTs in eight games. Evans leads the Buccaneers with 594 receiving yards and five touchdowns, while Godwin leads Tampa Bay in targets (62) and receptions (40). The Bucs are 2-1 when Evans and Godwin both have 50-plus receiving yards in 2023, and 1-4 in other games. Kristian Fulton has played well of late, and he needs to remain solid. A consistent pass rush would help the cause, and aside from DT Jeffery Simmons (third in the NFL in pressures), so far that hasn't been happening. The Titans are 30th in the NFL in total pressures, and they rank in the bottom-five in both QB hurries and hits.
The Titans will be without Treylon Burks once again following his concussion against the Steelers. DeAndre Hopkins leads the Titans with 35 catches for 564 yards, but the Titans need more help around him – the Titans are the only team in the NFL without two players with 225-plus receiving yards, and they're one of just three teams in the NFL without two players with 25-plus receptions. Kyle Philips turned in his best game as a pro in Pittsburgh (four catches, 68 yards), so perhaps that's a sign of things to come on a team looking to help its rookie QB. Giving running backs Derrick Henry and Tyjae Spears room to run would open things up in the passing game as well.
Importance on Week 10
The Titans are underdogs for the eighth time in nine games this season, as the Buccaneers are favored by one point in Sunday's game. The Titans (3-5) are closing in on a now-or-never situation, if they're not there yet. Since 1990, teams that started a season 4-5 have made the playoffs 16.7% of the time, won the division 7.2% of the time and won the Super Bowl 0.0% of the time. The percentages for teams that started 3-6: 3.8% for playoffs, 1.3% for division and 0.0% for Super Bowl. A good sign?: The Titans are 10-2 all-time against the Buccaneers, including three wins in a row.