Jake Locker thought his fourth-and-one dive went far enough for a first down.
The officials didn’t see it that way and the Tennessee Titans quarterback a foot short of a first-down. With 2:18 left and the New Orleans Saints clinging to a five-point lead on Sunday, it appeared the game was over.
Again, Locker had his own thoughts.
While the defense took four plays to force a punt, the rookie bounced around on the sidelines. He huddled up with his linemen. He offered words of encouragement to deflated wide receiver Nate Washington. He even went over to starting quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who left in the first half with a leg injury, for some last-second advice.
Locker and the Titans did have one final charge — which ended with Locker going down eight yards short of the end zone in a 22-17 loss. In just his third appearance of the season, however, he stayed poised and showed off his versatility, resiliency and toughness in front of 69,143 at LP Field and a national television audience.
“Jake, man, he’s a warrior,” Washington said. “To be a rookie, to be as confident as he is and to do the things that he does ... that is exactly what we need. The confidence is everything. He has never been a guy that came in and was nervous or was like a deer in the headlights. After that fourth-down stop, he told me, ‘Don’t worry about it. I’m pretty sure we’ll get the ball back and we just have to believe something big will happen.’ Hearing that from Jake, a young guy, means a lot.”
Entering with 11:13 to go in the second quarter, Locker energized the Titans (7-6) in his most extended playing time of the season. Though the first-round draft pick was shaky at times, he also looked sharp in big moments. He completed 13 of 29 passes for a touchdown and 282 yards — with 150 coming in the fourth quarter. He also ran for 36 yards and a score, bringing a different dimension than the veteran Hasselbeck.
“The team competed [Sunday],” Locker said. “It is hard to take this loss but I think it is something we as a football team can be proud of. We had a chance at the end of the game to win a football game against one of the best teams in the league. You can’t ask for anything anymore.”
Late in the third quarter, Locker’s feet gave the Titans a 10-9 lead. One play after a 54-yard pass to Damian Williams — with Williams picking up at least 40 yards after the catch — Locker scrambled toward the end zone.
He got around the edge, sidestepping a couple defenders and staying inbounds long enough to stretch the football over the pylon.
“You’re going to see an exciting player that can make plays, that is fearless, that makes plays with his legs, that buys time,” Titans coach Mike Munchak said.
Drew Brees’ second straight touchdown pass put the Saints (10-3) up 22-10 with 7:01 left.
Locker swung right back.
He needed just three plays to score, with two pass completions sandwiched around a 17-yard scamper up the middle of the field. He capped off the drive with a 40-yard strike to Washington, right over the hands of cornerback Jabari Greer. Washington hauled in the pass and bounced off a defender and into the end zone.
“He played composed,” right guard Jake Scott said. “He made good decisions. He moved us down the field three times. That is what we need him to do. He did his job as good as you could expect.”
He absorbed blow late in the fourth quarter. But the 6-foot-3, 234-pounder didn’t stay out for long —just one play.
Saints cornerback Tracy Porter came from the blindside, knocking Locker hard on his side and into his linemen. Saying he had the wind got knocked out of him, he re-replaced Hasselbeck — who hopped off on one leg after completing a pass — and just overshot Williams in the end zone.
On the next play, he was stopped on fourth down.
With 1:34 left, the Titans got the ball at their 20-yard line. Locker completed three straight passes, the last going to Washington for a 40-yard gain to the Saints’ 5-yard line.
After an incomplete pass, he tried to avoid pressure and find an open receiver in the end zone. Unfortunately, he ran out of time, taking a sack to end the game.
While it was a rookie mistake to hold on to the ball, his determination didn’t go unnoticed.
“We’ve been bragging on him because we drafted him for a reason and we feel that’s what you’re going to see,” Munchak said. “He gave us a chance in that game to get back in it a couple times ... almost pulled the whole thing out again.”