By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
BEREA: When the Browns identified Jabaal Sheard and Paul Kruger as their starting outside linebackers in the offseason, many observers correctly assumed the coaching staff planned to use Barkevious Mingo primarily as a pass rusher during this rookie season.
But injuries have already changed the original plan.
Sheard is listed as doubtful to play Sunday when the Browns (1-2) host the Cincinnati Bengals (2-1) because he sprained his left knee this past weekend against the Minnesota Vikings and has not practiced since. Meanwhile, outside linebacker Quentin Groves has been ruled out for the second consecutive game with a high-ankle sprain he suffered Sept. 15 against the Baltimore Ravens.
So Mingo, the sixth overall pick, is on track to start this weekend and receive the most extensive playing time of his young career.
“With whatever I’m called to do, I just prepare for it, and I’ll be ready if I’m called to do it,” Mingo said Friday after practice. “It’s very exciting, with the possibility of getting my first start.
“When you got multiple guys that can play and can come in and play at the same level as the starters, that’s what you’re looking for as a team. That’s how you measure how good you are as a team.”
Mingo will likely line up on the right side of defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s 3-4 scheme opposite Kruger, the starter on the left side. Mingo sat out the regular-season opener as he recovered from a bruised lung he suffered Aug. 15 in an exhibition game, but he has played the past two games and registered five tackles, including two sacks.
Mingo played 25-of-72 snaps (35 percent) against the Ravens and 54-of-79 snaps (68 percent) against the Vikings. Kruger believes Mingo is ready for a heavier workload.
“He’s ready for it,” Kruger said. “He’s been ready since he came back [from the bruised lung]. He played a good amount last week, had a lot of production, he’s in really good shape, he knows his stuff. There’s no doubt in my mind he’s ready to go.”
Kruger does not buy the idea that the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Mingo could be a liability against the run.
“He’s a lighter guy, but he makes up for it with his power and with his speed,” Kruger said. “I have full confidence in him. He’s been a huge playmaker for us already. So there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind about his abilities.”
Fellow rookie backup outside linebackers Paul Hazel and Eric Martin could become part of the defense’s rotation of edge rushers against the Bengals.
“We have been staying after practice and trying to get some extra work,” Hazel said. “It will be big for us to step up and play.
“Coach said, ‘Make sure to be ready.’ We’ve got to bite down and get into our playbooks.”
The defensive line will be short-handed, too. Backup end Billy Winn has been ruled out for Sunday with a strained quadriceps he suffered against the Vikings.
If it’s any consolation for the Browns, the Bengals also have a banged-up defense. Starting cornerback Leon Hall (hamstring), starting free safety Reggie Nelson (hamstring) and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (hamstring) are listed as doubtful.
Billy Cundiff practiced and kicked Friday for the first time since suffering a strained right quadriceps during his fourth kickoff against the Vikings. Cundiff is listed as questionable for Sunday, but he’s optimistic about his status.
“I kicked enough just to kind of see how I feel and obviously we’ll evaluate tomorrow,” Cundiff said. “I’ve been encouraged all week.
“I’m excited to play football that’s obviously why I came to the Browns. I’m doing everything to get on the field.”
Punter Spencer Lanning could fill in for Cundiff in a pinch. Lanning was named the AFC Special Teams Player of the Week after punting, kicking an extra point following Cundiff’s injury and throwing an 11-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jordan Cameron on a fake field goal against the Vikings.
“I’m willing to do whatever it takes to help the Browns win a game,” Lanning said. “My longest field goal in college was 52 [yards], so I’d like to think I still have that leg strength.”
Browns coach Rob Chudzinski said Lanning and free-agent kickers are part of the team’s contingency plan if it’s determined that Cundiff can’t play.
Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer will start in front of his hometown crowd Sunday. Chudzinski is confident Hoyer, a North Olmsted native and St. Ignatius High School graduate, won’t be distracted by the emotions associated with playing in front of so many relatives and friends.
“I know he’s excited about his opportunity,” Chudzinski said. “We’ve talked mostly just about focusing on what we need to do and all the other things, blocking those things out and not worrying about those things.
“He’s a pro, and he understands that. Once the ball is kicked off, it’s football. He’s playing the game that he’s played his whole life. He knows what expectations are, and he’ll get into the course of the game, and we won’t be thinking a thing about that.”
Other injury updates
Right guard Shawn Lauvao could make his 2013 regular-season debut Sunday after missing the first three games while recovering from a high-ankle sprain and arthroscopic surgery. He is listed as questionable.
If Lauvao is able to play, he’ll likely re-enter the starting lineup against the Bengals. Veteran backup right tackle Oniel Cousins has filled in at right guard during Lauvao’s absence. The two rotated with the first-team offense this week.
“We’ll wait and see how [Lauvao] feels, and we’ll evaluate this practice and take a look at it on tape,” Chudzinski said. “He’s been working in and getting a good feel back into it. He’s moving around pretty well.”
Cousins (chest), defensive ends Ahtyba Rubin (calf) and Desmond Bryant (wrist) and wide receiver Josh Gordon (ankle) are probable.
Matchups to watch
Bengals Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green isn’t the only weapon quarterback Andy Dalton has at his disposal.
There are running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard.
“They are dynamic and they complement each other very well,” Horton said. “Mr. Green is a downhill runner, one-cut type. Mr. Bernard is a multiple-cut [runner]. They are both potent running back with different styles.”
And there are tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert.
“They’ve got two big athletic tight ends,” strong safety T.J. Ward said. “So we just got to play our game, play physical, get them off their routes and try to flush the quarterback.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com.