NASHVILLE, Tenn. — On Saturday night, Titans rookie QB Zach Mettenberger will have another chance to prove that impressive preseason results are more than just fool’s gold.
Titans backup Charlie Whitehurst won’t play against the host Falcons in the third preseason game for both teams (injured finger on throwing hand). That leaves Mettenberger taking all the quarterback snaps once starter Jake Locker gets pulled from the game.
That’s what happened last week when Whitehurst went down in the second quarter against the Saints. Mettenberger responded by completing 20 of 25 passes for 269 yards, two touchdowns and a superb passer rating of 121.5.
"Obviously, they see the stat line, and they look pretty good," said Mettenberger, a sixth-round draft pick out of LSU. "But I know there are a lot of things that I need to work on before I can consider myself a good player in this league."
Taking care of the football is high on that list. In two preseason games, Mettenberger has completed 75 percent of his passes for 356 yards, but he has also committed four turnovers — two interceptions and two fumbles in each outing.
Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt isn’t concerned about those turnovers — for now.
"The one that he gave up (against the Saints), he was actually in the throwing motion," said Whisenhunt, in his first season with the club. "So, it was, like, a split-second from going forward and it’s an incomplete pass. So, it was different from the one that it was the week before. That’s just unfortunate, from that standpoint."
Mettenberger has looked solid during training camp and in both preseason games. Against the Saints, he hooked up with second-year wide receiver Justin Hunter on a 64-yard scoring strike across the middle, connecting with the athletic pass catcher perfectly in stride so he could race to the end zone untouched.
"That was a huge confidence boost, not only for myself, but for a guy like Justin," Mettenberger said of the scoring play. "We have a lot of young talent on this team, and we need that confidence to kind of roll into the season."
With Whitehurst going down quickly last week, Mettenberger played most of the second quarter and all the second half.
"Well, we got 40-something snaps with Zach (last Friday) night, and that’s all valuable," Whisenhunt said of Mettenberger. "That’s a great learning experience for him. From his progression reads to how he handles the protection checks to how he does a lot of different things, that’s great experience."
The Titans traded up to select Mettenberger in the May draft. The strong-armed and physically imposing quarterback (6-foot-5, 244 pounds) passed for 3,082 yards with 22 touchdowns as a senior at LSU. He finished his Tigers career as the all-time leader in several passing categories, including 5,783 passing yards (sixth), 35 touchdowns (fifth), 407 completions (sixth) and 659 attempts (seventh).
But a knee injury suffered in LSU’s regular-season finale against Arkansas (Nov. 29) required surgery on Jan. 2. While Mettenberger appears nearly fully recovered from the injury, it did cause his stock to fall dramatically heading into the draft.
The Titans are hoping that Mettenberger can become one of the top steals in the draft, especially since the oft-injured Locker is in the final season of his rookie contract. Regardless of the circumstances, Mettenberger will be ready to go.
"I’m not going to turn down getting reps," Mettenberger said. "It’s an opportunity for me to get better and work with some different guys and play a little bit more football than necessarily with the (third- and fourth-stringers). While Charlie is down, I am going to take advantage of the opportunity and try to get as much better as possible."
In the first preseason game, Mettenberger made up for two turnovers by completing all three passes for 71 yards on a late game-winning drive that covered 80 yards on five plays. The biggest play was a 38-yard pass from Mettenberger to veteran wide receiver Brian Robiskie.
While Locker has the capability to tuck the ball and run, which exposes him to more injuries, Mettenberger is more of the prototypical pocket passer, if only by necessity.
"I think everybody knows that I am not going to run away from too many people," Mettenberger said. "So, I’ve gotten pretty good at just being able to work in small space in a pocket. I just have to get through my reads a little bit faster to avoid strip sacks like I did."
Even so, Whisenhunt said he likes what Mettenberger has done thus far in two preseason games.
"He made some plays," Whisenhunt said. "Obviously he had some turnovers. We all make mistakes, and I think the best thing to do is try to learn from those, so it was a great experience from that standpoint."
With Mettenberger’s solid play and practice sessions, the Titans were able to release second-year quarterback Tyler Wilson, who was picked up by the Bengals.
But Mettenberger knows it’s still just the preseason he has still has a lot to learn.
"I’m a pretty grounded person," Mettenberger said. "I don’t think one game is going to change me. In this business, you’re only as good as your next performance, and I can go out next week and be 0-for-10 and suck. I’ve just got to keep working and progressing where (Saturday) I have another good game."