By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
BEREA: Browns center Alex Mack wouldn’t specify whether he’s open to letting his agent negotiate a contract extension during this season, but he made it clear he doesn’t want any such business to distract him from football.
“[Keeping] you guys from asking too many questions would be a good way to limit distractions,” Mack said with a smile Friday after practice. “Really just playing football [is my priority]. The team wins and I win if I play at my best level. So that’s my goal.”
Mack knows he must be at the top of his game Sunday when the Browns (0-1) visit the Baltimore Ravens (0-1). He’ll face four-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Haloti Ngata, one of the best defensive players in the AFC North and the entire NFL.
“Haloti’s a really good player,” Mack said. “He’s real big and he moves well, which is a very bad combo for offensive linemen. He’s real powerful. He takes up a lot of space. He’s a special player.”
Mack isn’t too shabby himself. He made the Pro Bowl in 2010, and last year Ngata called Mack the best center in the division.
Mack’s rookie contract is scheduled to expire in March, and Jason La Canfora of CBS, citing an unnamed source, reported Sunday that Mack is not open to negotiating a new deal during this season. Some players avoid negotiations during the season to prevent distractions.
“I’m really focused on playing ball,” Mack said. “I can’t really do anything to control any of that. As long as I play well, everything will work out. That’s really what an agent’s for.”
When asked if he’s open to his agent, Marvin Demoff, negotiating with the organization during the season, Mack said, “I’m letting him handle that, and I’m worried about football.”
The 6-foot-4, 310-pound Mack sounded as if he wants to continue his career in Cleveland beyond this season.
“I like it here,” Mack said. “I like the people I’m with, I like my coaches and I’m happy as a Brown.”
In July, Browns General Manager Mike Lombardi said Mack fits the profile of a player the organization wants to sign to a contract extension. Mack, 27, has started all 64 games for the Browns since they drafted him in the first round (21st overall) in 2009.
“I think Alex certainly has proven that he’s a good player on and off the field,” Lombardi said. “I think he stands for that, and I think he has the ability to continue to play well. So he certainly fits the profile.”
Mack and his fellow offensive linemen are aiming to rebound from a rough showing in a 23-10, season-opening loss to the Miami Dolphins. The Dolphins harassed Brandon Weeden for the vast majority of the game and tallied 16 quarterback hits, including six sacks.
“We’re tightening up some protection issues,” Mack said. “We’re just working hard, working on our technique. Also scheme-wise, [we’ll] try to mix it up a little bit more, keep the defense on the back of their heels.”
Wide receiver Greg Little dropped two passes against the Dolphins, including one that was intercepted after it deflected off his hands. The pass was thrown high and hard, but Little knows he must be reliable.
“I’ve just got to make the plays that are there for me,” Little said. “If I make those plays, we’re able to stay on the field longer.”
With Josh Gordon on the verge of serving the final game of his two-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy, Little and the rest of the receiving corps know they must step up and provide Weeden with more support.
“That’s always our thing whether it’s a bad ball, fast ball, wherever the ball is, it’s ours,” Little said. “We don’t particularly care where it is. It’s in the air, and it’s our chance to either go knock it down or make a play on it. And Brandon handles it well. He understands the pressures of being a quarterback. They’re the highest-paid guys in the league.”
Little said he has talked to Weeden this week to reinforce the idea he wants to help him on the field.
“He knows how I feel about being open and wanting the ball and that sort of thing,” Little said. “But it’s good. Me and Brandon are on the same page. It’s great.”
Little said the receivers and quarterbacks watched film together this week to fix some of the issues they had against the Dolphins.
“I spent a lot more time watching film,” Little said. “So I’m not so uncertain about looks from the defense, and I think I spent a lot more time watching film with Brandon and the quarterbacks. I think that’s going to help us more. Usually we watch [film] as receivers, quarterbacks, but we watched them together and kind of get what they’re thinking and that way we’ll all be on the same page.”
The Browns converted only 1-of-14 third downs against the Dolphins, but Little is confident they’ll be able to bounce back.
“That’s obviously the glaring stat of the game,” Little said. “And I think once we improve there, a lot more will carry right behind that.
“I just think once we start, then it will just be no stopping us. I just think once we get the snowball rolling, we’ll be fine.”
Browns coach Rob Chudzinski ruled out right guard Shawn Lauvao (high ankle sprain) for Sunday, meaning Oniel Cousins will start in his place for the second consecutive game.
Cousins committed four penalties against the Dolphins, including a holding call that wiped out tight end Gary Barnidge’s 20-yard touchdown catch late in the fourth quarter. According to ProFootballFocus.com, Cousins also allowed two sacks and three hurries.
Chudzinski trusts that Cousins will make good on his promise to perform better against the Ravens, his former team.
“He’s worked extremely hard this week,” Chudzinski said. “He’s been the last guy coming off the field. I saw him in the weight room doing extra things and out here doing extra things on his day off. You can’t ask for anything more. He’s really working at it and wants to do well. I expect him to be better.”
Meanwhile, left defensive end Ahtyba Rubin (calf) is listed as doubtful on the injury report. Like Lauvao, Rubin was sidelined Sunday and did not practice this week.
Billy Winn will start in Rubin’s spot for the second consecutive game if the latter sits out against the Ravens, Chudzinski said. Winn played 37-of-77 defensive snaps despite dealing with calf cramps and finished with two tackles.
“Winn stepped up and was a starter,” defensive coordinator Ray Horton said. “He provided an extra push up front.”
Other injury updates
Strong safety T.J. Ward (shoulder) and wide receiver Travis Benjamin (thigh) are listed as questionable after suffering injuries against the Dolphins. Both of them sound as if they expect to play.
“I practiced this week, no contact, no pads and it felt good,” Ward said. “I felt normal. I’m positive about it.”
Benjamin doesn’t think he’ll be hindered at all.
“I’ve been returning punts and [taking reps as a] receiver with the ones and deep routes,” Benjamin said. “I’m ready to go.”
Rookie outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo (bruised lung) and cornerback Buster Skrine (shoulder) are probable. Chudzinski said Mingo will be available for action on both defense and special teams Sunday in his NFL regular-season debut, and the team has not set a snap limit for him.
Good to hear
Running back Trent Richardson had just 13 carries for 47 yards (3.6 average) to go along with two catches for 30 yards against the Dolphins. He stressed Thursday that he wants to be more involved.
“I love hearing that from any player, that they want the ball,” Chudzinski said. “Trent is a big part of what we do. As you know, the games are all different. It depends on how things happen during the course of those games. What we want to do is be able to sustain some drives and convert on third downs and give a lot of guys opportunities.”
Kicker Billy Cundiff played for the Ravens from 2009-11, and he is eager to face his former team.
“I’m excited to get back to playing there,” Cundiff said. “I felt like I kicked extremely well in that stadium. I have some special memories playing for the Ravens, really enjoyed my time, felt like the city treated me well. I’m obviously excited to go back for that reason.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.