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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Dexter McCluster could hear the Chiefs yelling, making sure each knew the speedster was on the field for the Titans. Rookie Bishop Sankey noticed defenders taking advantage of a timeout to see who Tennessee had in the huddle.
Paying close attention is a must with the Titans using not one, two, three but four different running backs to replace Chris Johnson this season.
It's all part of coach Ken Whisenhunt's plan to be as flexible and unpredictable as possible on offense.
"To be honest, you don't care who's in there if we're moving the ball and scoring," Whisenhunt said. "What I think's more important, I don't think our guys care."
They sure don't, at least not right now. Tennessee ran for 162 yards using the four backs with Shonn Greene getting his first start since signing a three-year deal with the Titans in March 2013. He finished with 71 yards on 15 carries for a 4.7-yard average. McCluster had nine carries, and Sankey the second-round draft pick in May out of Washington had six carries for 25 yards.
Even Leon Washington, the two-time Pro Bowl kick returner, had a couple of carries for 23 yards. Washington has averaged 4.7 yards per carry in his career, and Whisenhunt says he never saw Washington as only a returner.
"I've played against Leon a number of times," Whisenhunt said. "He was in the division when I was coaching Arizona, and I felt like he was a versatile guy that could help us in a number of areas. When we first got here, that was part of the plan. Leon was going to be involved as a running back. It's a good thing."
McCluster was a running back in college at Mississippi, but he had only eight carries all last season with Kansas City where he played receiver and returned punts. He said all the running backs are very unselfish knowing each can play. The rotation keeps them all refreshed, and they get the added bonus of keeping defenses off balance.
"To see them in a frenzy and a panic like that, we know we got the upper-hand on them," McCluster said.
He and Sankey are the new two running backs after the Titans cut Johnson, now with the Jets, in April to avoid $8 million this season. Sankey, the 54th pick overall, ran for a career-high 1,870 yards and 20 touchdowns as a junior and may end up with the bulk of the carries over the season. But he has bought into the team-first approach among the running backs.
"It works in our advantage to have those guys rotate in, have fresh legs and be able to get a break and come back in," Sankey said. "We're all working toward one goal, and that's to get wins."
Now the Cowboys (0-1) get to try to slow them down next. Dallas gave up 127 yards rushing in a season-opening loss to San Francisco. Dallas coach Jason Garrett said in a conference call that the Titans are doing a really good job with their personnel.
"For a team to use three and four running backs in a game, and using them in a lot of different games, it can be a real challenge for you," Garrett said.
Key to the early success may be that the Titans weren't afraid to run McCluster between the tackles just like Greene or Sankey.
"I'm hopeful that that's what people will see and understand we're going to do that," Whisenhunt said. "We're also going to use him with his versatility doing a number of different things, so hopefully we'll have success doing that."
Notes: WR Justin Hunter (knee) practiced fully Thursday a day after being limited. FB Jackie Battle (neck) was added to the injury report and was limited in practice. DT Mike Martin (hamstring) and S George Wilson (foot) were limited. QB Charlie Whitehurst (right pinkie) practiced fully.
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