NASHVILLE – Trailing bitter rival Baltimore by a touchdown last November, the Tennessee Titans needed a spark.
Late in the first half, the Titans had been stymied on successive drives and – facing fourth-and-7 – looked as if they were about to give up the ball to Lamar Jackson and Co. once again.
That’s when Tennessee pulled a shocker, not only surprising onlookers with a fake punt, but with the receiver trusted to execute a critical play. It was Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, the undrafted rookie free agent who – up until that time – had earned more notoriety for his struggles to catch passes consistently during practice than anything else.
So, when Westbrook-Ikhine ran the route as designed, made a contested catch of Logan Woodside’s pass and converted the first down – by smartly making sure he held the ball over the imaginary yard marker – it was a gigantic moment for the youngster. The Titans converted the first down into a scoring drive and trimmed the Ravens’ lead in a regular-season game that they eventually won.
“It was huge,” Westbrook-Ikhine said Wednesday as he recalled the play. “I knew that fake punt was in the game-plan and we were probably going to call it that game. So, once it was called, it was just executing my job. It was awesome seeing how many people were excited for me. It kind of showed how people view me on this team.”
That memorable reception was just the second of Westbrook-Ikhine’s career, and one of only three he had during the 2020 season. But the decision of coaches to rely on him in that game-changing situation was without question a confidence booster, not to mention evidence the team saw something in his potential.
An Expanding Role
Fast forward to this season, when Westbrook-Ikhine has become much more than just a special-teams standout, more than a surprise solution to a fourth-down quandary in Baltimore.
On a team featuring the likes of Julio Jones, A.J. Brown, Josh Reynolds, Chester Rogers and Marcus Johnson at wide receiver, it was Westbrook-Ikhine who caught the Titans’ go-ahead touchdown pass last Sunday and who led the Titans in catches (four) and receiving yards (53) in the victory over the Colts.
He played a career-high 53 snaps against Indianapolis, but Westbrook-Ikhine, may be counted on that much more this weekend versus the New York Jets, as the presence of Jones and Brown is in doubt after both missed Wednesday’s practice with hamstring injuries. Reynolds was inactive last week, Rogers is a slot specialist and Johnson just started practicing after missing the season’s first three weeks.
So, when Ryan Tannehill drops back to pass against the Jets, odds are good he’ll be looking Westbrook-Ikhine’s way on plenty of occasions.
“I have a ton of confidence in Nick,” Tannehill said, “and we are lucky to have him, a guy of his utility and a guy who can make plays all over.”
A Slow Start
How surprising it is to hear Tannehill say that when one considers the way things started last summer for Westbrook-Ikhine.
The 6-foot-2, 211-pound Westbrook-Ikhine was a physical specimen – tall, strong and fast. But he looked for all the world like a guy who was always on the verge of getting cut, a pass-catcher whose Achilles heel at the time – bad hands -- was a pretty significant flaw at the wide-receiver position.
“It was just some yips, nervousness, whatever you want to call it,” Westbrook-Ikhine said. “Everyone goes through it. I was a little nervous last year coming into camp as an undrafted guy, so it was just working out those nerves.”
Added Tannehill: “Anytime a rookie comes in, it is hard to expect them to be at their best in their first training camp.”
Westbrook-Ikhine still managed to prove his worth in 2020, however, even if he wasn’t snatching every pass out of the air. He distinguished himself on special teams, once making a key tackle on a fourth-down fake punt attempt by the Lions.
The one-time Indiana standout also showed a knack for blocking -- ‘’rooting out safeties,” as coach Mike Vrabel likes to say -- a critical talent on a team that relies so heavily on Derrick Henry and the run game.
And this season, Westbrook-Ikhine has flashed his intelligence, learning the responsibilities of all three receiver positions so well that the Titans can move him around the field – depending on the team’s personnel and situational needs.
“Nick’s one of those guys that every week, he shows you one more thing he can do,” wide receivers coach Rob Moore said. “He progressively gets better.
“He is a guy who has got some tremendous versatility for us. We can plug and play him anywhere and feel confident that he’ll do an excellent job. Anytime you have players like that, it just makes your job easier as a coach.”
Westbrook-Ikhine’s increased confidence in his catching ability has been on display this season, as he’s hauled in six of the seven passes that have been thrown in his direction, averaging 11.5 yards per reception. His second catch against the Colts was a milestone, as Westbrook-Ikhine snatched a short slant pass from Tannehill and cruised 18 yards into the end zone, recording his first career touchdown.
It was a moment that deserved a special celebration, which the wide receiver delivered when he raised both hands high and knocked his knees inside-and-out. The move was a tribute to former Oilers great Billy “White Shoes” Johnson, the originator of that “Chicken Dance” and one of many former Oilers at Nissan Stadium last Sunday.
How far Westbrook-Ikhine had come from all those drops that marked his first training camp.
“I’d just say I’m catching the ball more consistently and confidently,” Westbrook-Ikhine said. “It’s just being confident and knowing what I have to do in every play. That way I feel like I play more confident – a little bit more loose and not so uptight.”