Johnson out; McNair in

11-18-01, 11:45 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Even two hours before Sunday's kickoff, Bengals rookie wide receiver Chad Johnson insisted he could play. But the Bengals, who were looking for more improvement from his broken left collarbone during practice this past week, decided to inactivate him for the fourth straight game.

A Titans official indicated before pre-game warmups that Tennessee quarterback Steve McNair would start despite missing every practice since Monday night's loss against the Ravens with a bone bruise in his throwing thumb.

With Johnson out and tight end Marco Battaglia shelved for the season after Saturday's appendectomy,

the Bengals went into the game against the Titans without two of their better third-down receivers. Because Battaglia got sick in the wee hours of Saturday morning, the Bengals virtually had no chance to implement changes into their game plan.

Tight end Kirk McMullen, signed from the practice squad, makes his NFL debut, but it's unclear what he'll be asked to do on third down. He's seen as a comparable blocker to Battaglia, but isn't as accomplished a receiver.

The move could force the Bengals to use more of running back Brandon Bennett with Corey Dillon on third down, or go with more sets of four wide receivers. But that presents problems in pass protection, a key element against the Titans and their pass-rushing tandem of defensive ends Jevon Kearse and Kevin Carter.

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