Wiedmer: Former UTC lineman Corey Levin helps key Titans' comeback win

Wiedmer: Former UTC lineman Corey Levin helps key Titans' comeback win

December 3rd, 2018 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns
Tennessee Titans offensive lineman Corey Levin runs to a drill during training camp in July in Nashville. Levin is a former UTC standout who was drafted by the Titans in 2017.

Tennessee Titans offensive lineman Corey Levin runs to...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE — Whatever first-year Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel saw from his offensive linemen during the first half of Sunday's game against the visiting New York Jets, by halftime he had seen enough.

As soon as his squad hit the locker room, he informed former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga standout Corey Levin that he would start the second half at center.

Starting center Ben Jones would be moved to guard. Left guard Quinton Spain would head to the bench.

"I got the start in London (against the Los Angeles Chargers) at guard," Levin said. "But this was the first time at center. I love it there. You have more responsibility."

Maybe Levin was responsible for why the Titans' offense gained 277 more yards in the second half than in the first, and maybe he wasn't. Maybe he was the reason, or at least one reason why the Titans went from a 16-6 halftime hole to a 26-22 victory, or maybe he was just lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time.

But a team desperate for a victory after two straight lopsided defeats definitely played better over Sunday's final two quarters than during its opening half. And with that victory, the Titans' playoff hopes are alive and well instead of all but done heading into Thursday night's home game against AFC South rival Jacksonville.

"It's exactly 96 hours until we play again," Levin said before leaving Nissan Stadium. "We've got to focus on everyone getting their bodies back, got to get in (Monday) and jump on those guys (the Jaguars) and get as far ahead as we can as soon as we can."

The Titans looked as if they were mentally and emotionally far behind where they needed to be when this game began. Despite the Jets having lost five straight entering, the men from the Big Apple took a 10-0 lead in the opening period when New York defensive back Trumaine Johnson picked off a Marcus Mariota pass and returned it 31 yards for a touchdown.

It would get worse before it would get better, with the Jets' Jason Myers kicking his second and third field goals of the late afternoon to put New York on top 16-0 with but 2:51 left in the second period.

Mariota's touchdown pass to backup tight end Anthony Firkser 51 seconds before intermission pulled the home team within 16-6, but the extra point was blocked. The Jets' lead would grow to 19-6 on yet another Myers field goal early in the third period before the Titans began to show any signs of energy or interest on offense.

"We kept shooting ourselves in the foot," said wide receiver Taywan Taylor, who wound up with three catches for 104 yards, all of them coming after the break. "But we've been resilient all year."

And with Levin at center and Mariota finally feeling more comfortable in the pocket, momentum began to shift to the Titans, even if the slowness of its arrival brought about more than one round of sustained boos from a frustrated crowd of 60,904.

"I know a lot of people are frustrated with us," Tennessee offensive tackle Taylor Lewan said, "but we're going to get it going."

Actually, they repeatedly got it going pretty good in the final half until they hit the red zone. Though they got inside the Jets' 20-yard line twice over the first nine minutes of the final period, they had to settle for Ryan Succop field goals of 24 and 33 yards rather than touchdowns.

Then again, they were playing the NFL's No. 2 third-down defense.

"They bring a lot of looks, a lot of movement," Levin said. "You've got to keep your eyes from moving in every direction. It's a tough defense to block, especially on third down."

But down the stretch, that's exactly what they did, especially when they got the ball a final time with 1:46 on the clock on their own 14, down 22-19 on the scoreboard and needing a touchdown to avoid overtime.

Not that the Jets didn't help. Three times on the final drive they were whistled for penalties, the last of those a 15-yard face-mask call at the end of a Mariota run that moved the ball to the Jets' 39.

"That was huge," Levin said. "That got us past the 50."

And once past midfield, Mariota did what he'd done 11 times previously during his four-year NFL career — he engineered a game-winning drive by hitting receiver Corey Davis with a touchdown pass from 11 yards out with 36 seconds to go.

When Malcolm Butler intercepted Jets quarterback Josh McCown with 20 seconds to play, the Titans somehow had their sixth win of the season against six defeats rather than falling to a playoff-killing 5-7.

Said Levin afterward: "You would like to see touchdowns in the red zone there, twice, so it doesn't have to be such a nail-biter at the end. But we played good ball there at the end to pull out the win. When Marcus has a pocket (to throw from), he can slice a team up."

Said Mariota: "We've got a group of guys who trust and believe in one another. That's all you need."

At least it was on Sunday with more than a little help from a former UTC Moc.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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