By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
BEREA: As the Browns prepare for their third preseason game Saturday on the road against the Indianapolis Colts, Buster Skrine remains locked in a competition with Chris Owens for the starting cornerback job opposite Joe Haden.
Whoever falls short in the position battle will still receive ample playing time as the third corner in the team’s nickel package, but Skrine wouldn’t be satisfied with that role. He desperately wants to emerge as the victor.
“Me and Chris, we’re both battling for the starting job,” Skrine said. “It’s no secret. Me and Chris have a legitimate chance of starting, so bringing Chris here is helping me get better.
“I want to start. Even if I didn’t start, I still have respect for the coaches’ decision. But I do want to start.”
Skrine and Owens, who signed with the Browns in March, split reps with the first-team defense throughout training camp, and Owens seemed to gain an early advantage. Skrine, though, has made a strong case for himself in the past two weeks.
The 5-foot-9, 185-pound Skrine started the exhibition opener Aug. 8 against the St. Louis Rams while Owens was sidelined with a strained foot. Skrine recovered a fumble with 5:08 left in the opening quarter after nose tackle Phil Taylor knocked the ball away from running back Isaiah Pead.
Owens returned to action and started Thursday against the Detroit Lions, but Skrine is still scratching and clawing every step of the way. He has consistently broken up passes throughout the summer. During the final practice of camp Monday, Skrine knocked a pass out of tight end Kellen Davis’ grasp.
“He’s quick, he’s fast and now he’s calming down,” Haden said. “He’s not just making quick movements. He knows that he’s fast, knows that he can get out of his breaks a lot faster than the receiver.
“When the receiver comes out of his breaks, he’s right on him because he’s so quick. If the receiver’s running a comeback, and Buster’s under control, he’s going to get out of his break before the receiver. He’s being a lot more patient.”
Skrine studied film all offseason and believes he’s recognizing routes better as a result.
“With the homework in the offseason and the things we’ve been doing with the coaches, the game’s slowing down for me,” Skrine said. “I know when to turn [my speed] on and when to turn it off. I’ve gotten better with controlling just how I play.”
Skrine, a 2011 fifth-round draft pick from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, has taken some lumps the past two seasons. In 2012, he received extensive playing time, which included six starts, because of injuries and Haden’s four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances.
Skrine finished last season with 12 penalties (nine on defense and three on special teams) and allowed a passer rating of 114.6 on balls thrown into his coverage, according to ProFootballFocus.com. He also tallied 73 tackles and 11 pass breakups.
“Last year, I learned a lot,” Skrine said. “I made a lot of plays. I made some mistakes. But I’ve grown as a player and become a smarter player. This year, I’m looking to do big things.
“[I’ll] still be aggressive, but a little less aggressive. Some things I’ve improved on is finding the ball better. Last year, I’d attack the man, then look, which costs a penalty.”
Even though Skrine had inconsistent performances, new defensive coordinator Ray Horton identified encouraging traits.
“I saw every game last year, and Buster impressed me with his toughness,” Horton said. “He’s ferocious. He has no fear, and he has unbelievable quickness in the feet, hands, and he’s smart. So he’s progressing exactly as I hoped.”
The Browns need Skrine to step up whether he starts or not. No matter how the competition shakes out, Skrine, Owens and Haden will be on the field together a lot because Horton will use a nickel defense for more than half of the snaps.
And Horton is convinced Skrine and Owens will be at their best because of each other.
“To me, they are clones of each other,” Horton said. “They are really Siamese twins: same body build, same quickness, same height, same competitiveness. I think the competition has helped them get better. I think they would both say, ‘He has pushed me to be better.’ ”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.