Titans’ rebuilt backfield, post-Johnson, a study in versatility
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Titans have replaced the featured running back system of departed Chris Johnson with a stable of versatile backs.
"Multiple, do a lot of things," said Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt after Thursday’s training camp session, when asked his ideal requirements for rushers.
Better yet, the Titans have multiple running backs capable of doing a variety of things. Whisenhunt figures that combination will more than offset the production lost by releasing Johnson, Tennessee’s leading rusher each of the past six seasons (7,965 yards, 50 TDs).
Rookie Bishop Sankey, the first running back taken in the May draft, free-agent signee Dexter McCluster and powerful Shonn Greene make for a 1-2-3 punch in the Titans backfield. Two more veterans — short-yardage expert Jackie Battle and elusive Leon Washington — add to the many options out of the backfield.
"Shonn brings something different than Dexter, who brings something different than Bishop," said Titans offensive coordinator Jason Michael. "It’s all of them bringing a different mix and different things. Through our evaluations up to this point, and we will continue with the (offense) installs, we’re trying to find the strengths of the players to match what the weaknesses of the defenses are."
For that template, just look at the Chargers last season with Whisenhunt as offensive coordinator and Michael as tight ends coach. The trio of Ryan Mathews (1,444 total yards, seven TDs), Danny Woodhead (1,034 total yards, eight TDs) and Ronnie Brown combined for 2,695 yards and 16 touchdowns.
"Being able to mix those guys in and the strengths that they did," Michael said of last season. "That’s how we are going to use our guys. We’re still trying to find out what are those strengths. But once we find that out, we’ll be able to mix that in with what they do to give us the best opportunity offensively."
After four seasons with the Chiefs, including making Pro Bowl last year as a punt returner, McCluster envisions himself in the mold of Woodhead’s rushing-receiving role under Whisenhunt/Michael. As the Chiefs’ primary rusher in 2011 (the year Jamaal Charles tore an ACL), McCluster responded with 516 yards on 4.5 yards per carry.
"I have been a running back all my life," said the McCluster, at just 5-foot-8 and 170 pounds. "I might not be the prototype, but I definitely feel back at home (at running back). I think they felt that way (with the Chiefs), but they just didn’t want to risk me getting hurt. But here, this is my fifth year in the league, so they know I can handle punishment."
After rushing for more than 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons for the Jets, Greene signed as a free agent last year — as a change-of-pace option to Chris Johnson’s spurts. But Greene tallied only 77 carries for 295 yards, due to various injuries.
"As a first- and second-down back as a runner, that is what he has done for years in this league," Michael said of Greene, who has a career average of 4.1 yards per carry. "Having been in this league, he is a guy who understands (pass) protections and can be there in the run game."
Just how the Titans use Sankey remains a mystery. Because of school requirements, the second-round draft pick out of Washington missed all but three Organized Team Activity and minicamp sessions (during the spring).
"I feel like each and every day I am getting better, especially assignment-wise," said Sankey, who had 3,496 rushing yards in three seasons at Washington (2011-13), third-most in Huskies history. His school-record 1,870 rushing yards last year led the Pac-12 Conference (fourth in the nation).
"It’s a cool thing finally being out there with the rest of the guys getting to practice," Sankey added. "The coaches want me to just be reliable and productive in the pass-blocking game, running game and passing game. That’s what I’m working to be right now, just be that all-around back."
Sankey entered training camp behind teammates in the learning curve of absorbing a new offense. But the versatility (and explosiveness) are already apparent.
"(Sankey) has looked good," Whisenhunt said. "There is a lot of things you can see that hurt him from missing, but he’s flashed, too. Hopefully, he will continue to get better as we go. One of the things that we were interested in as a draft pick was how smart he was. That’s why we brought him here."
A special teams standout, Battle is also dependable in short-yardage situations.
Washington has eight kickoff-return touchdowns in his career (tied for the NFL record), but he’s also a rangy back, rushing for 2,214 yards over eight pro seasons.
"We’ll have a good idea of what each guy does and what are their strengths," Michael said of the group, "and that is the core of what we will have in weekly. And with that, when we see opportunities that, ‘Hey, this mix may be a little more this week because they are doing something,’ that’s what we are trying to do."
And that’s just fine with McCluster.
"That is what is going to make us so special," he said. It’s a group of guys that can do a bunch of different things. And if you can get those bunch of different things to work for you, it can definitely get some things going."