By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
BEREA: Browns right guard Shawn Lauvao has been working with the first-team offense this week, rotating with Oniel Cousins in an effort to return from an ankle injury and make his 2013 regular-season debut Sunday against the visiting Cincinnati Bengals.
But coming back is easier said than done.
“Honestly, I feel kind of rusty,” Lauvao said Thursday before practice. “I’ve been out of the game for a little while. You’ve just got to keep working at it, keep getting better. It’s going to be sore just ’cause I’ve been definitely taking on a bigger workload. I’m just taking it day by day.”
Lauvao suffered a left high-ankle sprain during training camp Aug. 5 as nose tackle Phil Taylor bull-rushed him. He had arthroscopic surgery on the ankle Aug. 9 and had bone and ligaments cleaned out.
The injury put the Browns (1-2) in a bind because Jason Pinkston also suffered a high-ankle sprain Aug. 15 against the Detroit Lions and has been sidelined since. Lauvao and Pinkston were competing to start at right guard before they were hurt. Cousins, a veteran backup right tackle, was moved to right guard and thrust into the starting lineup because of the injuries.
The 6-foot-3, 315-pound Lauvao wants to help the team by stepping back into the starting lineup, but he also doesn’t want to rush his return and suffer a setback. He practiced last week on a limited basis but did not play Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings. He was listed as limited on the team’s injury report again Thursday.
“You try to be smart, but at the same time, you want to be out there,” said Lauvao, a 2010 third-round draft pick who started all 32 games the past two seasons. “It’s tough. So you want to make sure when you come back you’re ready.”
If Lauvao is ready to face the Bengals (2-1), he’ll be welcomed back by one of the NFL’s best defensive lines. The Browns’ interior offensive linemen must be at their best against All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins and veteran nose tackle Domata Peko.
“[Atkins is] a tremendous player,” Lauvao said. “If you’re not on top of your game, he’ll take advantage of you. I’ve been fortunate enough since I’ve been here to do a decent job. He’s a speed guy. He can play with a lot of power. He plays with good average. [Peko is] another good player, a real savvy vet. He’ll definitely work. He’s good with his hands. He’s really good against the run.”
Lauvao is not only hoping to put his injury behind him, but he’s also trying to leave his recent driving mishap in the past. Lauvao was heading to the team’s training facility about 7 a.m. Sept. 16 when he went the wrong way on a ramp closed for construction, tried to turn around and went over a curb and an embankment on Interstate 90 near Carnegie Avenue in Cleveland. His car was stuck and later towed.
“I was just making a U-turn and in the process of making a U-turn, I didn’t look in the front,” Lauvao said. “I was worried. When I pulled off, I just realized I made a mistake and then from there I was like, ‘Wow. This doesn’t look good.’ ”
The day of the incident, Browns spokesman Zak Gilbert said no alcohol was involved. Lauvao wasn’t surprised that some assumed the contrary.
“People are always looking for dirt,” Lauvao said. “I made a wrong turn, and I made a mistake. It won’t happen again. To my defense, regardless, it’s just bringing bad publicity to myself more than anything.”
Lauvao, though, could create some positive publicity by returning from injury and playing well.
“I hope to come back better,” he said.
Elite wide receiver?
Browns cornerback Joe Haden believes teammate Josh Gordon is an elite wide receiver. After sitting out the first two games this season while serving a suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy, Gordon had a career-high 10 catches for 146 yards and a touchdown Sunday in a 31-27 win over the Minnesota Vikings.
“There aren’t too many J.G.’s,” Haden said. “You see when he’s in there, he’s more like [Bengals wide receiver] A.J. [Green] — fast, big, strong, can catch the ball through the middle and when you throw it up there, if you see his speed, he can just separate from people.”
Haden is convinced the previous regime got a steal by drafting Gordon in the second round of last year’s supplemental draft.
“He’s a first-round [talent],” Haden said. “He’s a legit No. 1 [receiver].”
Does offensive coordinator Norv Turner believe Gordon possesses the ability to be a top-tier receiver?
“It’s just so early to ask that,” Turner said. “The best players I’ve been around go out and practice every day like Josh played Sunday. They go play Sundays consistently. People talk about doing it a game or two games. I’m talking about people that do it six or seven years in a row and just do it. To evaluate Josh with any other guy of that caliber, I think time is going to determine that.”
Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton is familiar with quarterback Brian Hoyer because they were both with the Arizona Cardinals last season. So Horton was not surprised that Hoyer led the Browns to their first victory of the season Sunday by throwing the game-winning touchdown pass to tight end Jordan Cameron with 51 seconds left.
“I saw him in practice and the first pass in Arizona was amazing what he threw,” Horton said. “He threw a crossing route right over my head that had zip, velocity, accuracy.
“Brian’s a leader. He’s very calm under pressure. He understands defenses. He’s smart. He’s mobile. He knows where to go with the ball. We embrace him. The defense loved that he was out there throwing the ball around. I’m sure Jordan Cameron and Josh Gordon loved him last week. We love Brian.”
Hoyer will start again Sunday while Brandon Weeden remains sidelined with a sprained right thumb. As the players walked off the field following the team’s Thursday morning walk-through practice, Weeden was not wearing the black brace on his throwing hand that he had been using. He’s expected to start throwing this week, though he has been ruled out for Sunday.
Turner was asked if it’s too early to assume Hoyer is better than Weeden considering Hoyer had Gordon at his disposal and Weeden did not in the first two games.
“None of that matters to me in terms of the way people perceive it,” Turner said. “Brian’s playing right now. We’re getting him ready to go play and do the best he can do and give ourselves a chance to win. The great thing, obviously, and the thing that has everyone excited is when you go win a game in the last two minutes of the game, you score with 50 seconds left — that’s exciting. Those are traits you want in a quarterback.”
Starting right outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard (sprained left knee) sat out the second consecutive practice. Horton said he believes rookie outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo will be ready for a full workload in the event Sheard is sidelined Sunday.
“He’s growing,” Horton said of Mingo, the sixth overall pick in this year’s draft. … “I think he will be better this coming week than he was last weekend.”
Kicker Billy Cundiff (strained right quadriceps), defensive end Billy Winn (strained quadriceps) and outside linebacker Quentin Groves (high-ankle sprain) also continued to sit out.
Horton lamented the defense’s performance on third down. The Browns’ first three opponents have converted 24-of-49 third downs (49 percent). “Concerning, alarming, not good enough, and that goes on me,” Horton said. “But I’m calling a different game than I normally do till we get comfortable. Is it alarming? It’s shocking to me.” … Former linebacker Galen Fiss (1956-65) and guard Abe Gibron (1950-56) will be inducted into the Cleveland Browns Legends during a pregame ceremony Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium, the team announced Thursday.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com.