By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
Not only did the Browns win their first two exhibition games, but their starters also dominated the Detroit Lions and St. Louis Rams, outscoring them a combined 34-3.
The starters hope to maintain the momentum in their most extensive preseason action yet when the Browns visit the Indianapolis Colts for a “dress rehearsal” exhibition game at 7 tonight. The Browns certainly won’t unveil big chunks of their playbook, but they have been game planning for the Colts to simulate a week of regular-season preparation.
Coach Rob Chudzinski plans to play most of his starters the entire first half and for one series in the third quarter. He wants to see Brandon Weeden, who was officially named the starting quarterback Tuesday, build on his stellar production — 18-of-25 passing for 229 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a rating of 139.8. He wants to see the first-team defense continue to thrive after tallying four three-and-outs and a turnover in its seven series.
But aside from the big-picture performances, Chudzinski will pay close attention to four positions he still considers unsettled with the Sept. 8 regular-season opener against the visiting Miami Dolphins on the horizon. They are right guard, right cornerback, kicker and punter.
Some of the jobs in question could be won or lost against the Colts, especially when considering rosters must be trimmed to a maximum of 75 players by Tuesday and the starters might not even play in the exhibition finale Thursday against the Chicago Bears.
With that in mind, here are the key positions to watch tonight:
Shawn Lauvao and Jason Pinkston were battling for the starting job during training camp, but high ankle sprains — Lauvao also underwent arthroscopic surgery — will force both of them to miss the early portion of the regular season.
Those injuries pushed the Browns into the market for a guard, and they tried to satisfy the need Monday by trading defensive end Brian Sanford to the Seattle Seahawks in exchange for John Moffitt. However, the Browns voided the deal Tuesday because they had concerns about Moffitt’s health. He had knee surgery two years ago and elbow surgery last summer.
So for now, veteran backup tackle Oniel Cousins and rookie Garrett Gilkey, a seventh-round pick, share the top spot on the depth chart. Cousins will start against the Colts, but Gilkey will also receive reps with the first-team offense, Chudzinski said.
The 6-foot-4, 315-pound Cousins played his lone NFL regular-season game at guard when he made a start for the Baltimore Ravens in 2009.
“Sometimes you just got to adapt,” said Cousins, who had practiced as a backup right tackle until recently. “That’s what I’m doing. I don’t have a choice. I’m real excited about the opportunity.
“You might be going against a bigger guy with a little more mass, not as fast. Our coaches teach us to know everything just in case we have to adjust. It’ll be a great challenge, and I’m looking forward to it. And I’m real thankful.”
Cousins, 29, draws inspiration from starting left guard John Greco. Greco was a career backup like Cousins until he entered the starting lineup for the final 10 games last season because a blood clot was discovered in Pinkston’s lung. In July, Greco signed a new five-year deal worth a maximum of $14 million, including incentives.
“John went in and did a great job, and I’m happy for him and proud of him,” Cousins said. “Now it’s my time to go out there and do my best and show what I can do.”
Chudzinski explained that he gave Cousins the nod to start against the Colts because he’s more experienced than Gilkey, 23, but the 6-6, 320-pound redhead from Division II Chadron State College shouldn’t be counted out just yet.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen, so you go in and just play lights out,” Gilkey said. “I trust the coaching staff. I trust their decisions. They’re going to do what’s best for this team.”
Last week, Gilkey was thrust into action against Lions star defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh after Pinkston was hobbled early in the first quarter.
“Coming from Chadron, there’s definitely a learning curve,” Gilkey said. “I was thrown into the fire last week, and there’s a lot I need to learn. I’m still just trying to get that experience and grasp this offense and try to refine everything.”
Buster Skrine and Chris Owens have been fighting for the starting cornerback job opposite Joe Haden throughout the summer. Owens seemed to establish an early edge, but a nagging strained foot arch kept him out of the preseason opener and will likely sideline him against the Colts.
In the meantime, the 5-9, 185-pound Skrine has taken advantage of his opportunities. He’s expected to start against the Colts and show what he can do against quarterback Andrew Luck and Co.
No matter who wins the starting job, Skrine, 24, and Owens, 26, are expected to receive ample playing time because the Browns will use three cornerbacks in their nickel package for more than half of the defensive snaps.
Still, both players want to secure a starting role. They have each started a game in the preseason. They both have tallied two tackles, and Skrine has recovered a fumble.
“I always wish the best for Chris because that’s my good friend off the field and on the field,” Skrine said. “We both know that both of us are going to play a lot. The coaches have told us. But right now, at this point, we’re just battling for the starting spot.
“Everybody wants to be a starter in the league. I want to respect the coach’s decision regardless if I start or not. But it’s very important to me.”
The 5-9, 180-pound Owens is confident he’ll be ready to play in the regular-season opener, but he conceded it’s upsetting to be hindered by an injury while he’s in the midst of a position battle.
“It’s a little frustrating,” said Owens, who signed a one-year deal with the Browns in March after spending the past four seasons with the Atlanta Falcons. “If I’m not 100 percent, I can’t practice. As a competitor, I try to forget about that and stay focused on my health because that’s what’s important.”
With Owens expected to sit out tonight, rookie Leon McFadden will make his NFL preseason debut. McFadden, a third-round pick, was idle during the first two exhibition games with a strained groin.
“I was so antsy, especially getting a little taste of it warming up last week and being out there with the guys,” McFadden said. “I felt like I’m just itching for it. I’m happy it’s finally here.”
McFadden will play with the first-team defense when it employs its nickel package, Chudzinski said.
As for Skrine, he’ll continue to try to prove he can start opposite Haden.
“When you’re out there on the corner, you got to put your big-boy pads on,” Skrine said. “There are bigger receivers out there. You got to rely on your technique if you’re a smaller player to get the job done.”
Kicker and punter
Veteran Shayne Graham will handle all the kicking duties while undrafted rookie Brandon Bogotay remains sidelined with a strained groin he suffered last week against the Lions.
Given a chance to kick for the entire game last week, Bogotay got off to a strong start with two touchbacks on kickoffs and a successful 43-yard field goal. But Bogotay was hurt late in the second quarter, allowing Graham to enter the action and creating a significant obstacle in Bogotay’s quest to win the job.
“Anytime you get pulled out of the game, it’s frustrating,” Bogotay said. “I want to get out there as soon as possible. Every day I’m not out there, it’s frustrating.”
Bogotay, 24, has made field goals of 25 and 43 yards and missed a 54-yard attempt this preseason. Graham, 35, has made his lone field-goal attempt from 41 yards. They are both 3-for-3 on extra-point kicks.
Bogotay has a stronger leg than Graham, and his youth is an advantage. But if he can’t rebound soon from his injury, it’s unlikely he’ll prevail in the competition.
“There’s no expected target date,” Bogotay said of his return. “It’s a day-by-day process. I’m just focused on getting back as soon as possible.”
Spencer Lanning, 25, will handle all of the punting responsibilities against the Colts because he’s the only punter on the roster after the team waived T.J. Conley, 27, on Thursday.
Through two preseason games, Lanning has punted eight times for gross and net averages of 45.8 and 39 yards, respectively. Three of his eight punts have been downed inside the 20-yard line with two others resulting in touchbacks.
If Lanning seizes the moment, he could serve as the team’s punter in the regular season. If he falters, the front office will try to acquire someone else as specialists throughout the league are released. The same can be said about kicker, too.
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.