Quarterback battle long ways from being over

Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel seem drastically different in so many ways, with the exception of one area.

Neither of the two is good at skirting the truth when the topic is the competition to be the Browns starting quarterback. If you believed what they said this week, you’d think tonight’s road preseason game against the Washington Redskins is just another boring exercise on the long road to the regular season.

No one is buying that, which is why “ESPN” expects its highest rating ever for a NFL preseason game. Network executives would like to bill it as a matchup between quarterback Robert Griffin III of the Redskins and “Johnny Football,” but Browns coach Mike Pettine ruined that deciding to start Hoyer.

The fact is that this is arguably the most important preseason game of Hoyer’s six-year career. A poor showing, coupled with a strong effort by Manziel, could mean that Hoyer won’t start the season opener. There’s no predicting how many (if any) chances Hoyer would again have to win a starting job.

“I prepare every game, whether it’s preseason or regular season, like I’m going to play the whole game until the coach pulls me out,” Hoyer said in a matter-of-fact manner. “You have to be prepared to play a football game. Those guys aren’t going to hold back on the other side, that’s for sure.”

With Pettine set to make a decision on Tuesday, the grades from tonight’s game could tip the scales one way or the other. Three weeks of training camp and one preseason game have shown us only that the two are extremely close.

Manziel’s situation is less stressful for the obvious reason that he’s a rookie. Common sense usually dictates that rookie quarterbacks don’t start immediately, so it would be natural for Manziel to walk the sideline against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the opener and watch and learn.

“I don’t think there’s any pressure for me,” Manziel said. “I’m still learning.”

It might be hard to believe, but there are actually other positions that Pettine and his staff will keep a close watch on tonight. Offensively, a decision still has to be made at right guard. John Greco is a returning starter and probably has an edge, but he’s shared first-team repetitions with Garrett Gilkey.

Pettine said that rookie running back Terrance West will get time with the first unit, more to see how he’ll work against the Redskins’ first-team defense. Ben Tate is the likely starter, but West could push for more time with good showings in the last three games.

Then there’s the competition at the receiver spots. If Josh Gordon is suspended for any length of time, a big hole will exist that won’t be filled easily. Miles Austin had a good week to finish off a decent camp. The reviews haven’t been as promising for the rest of a group that is clearly the weakest area on the roster.

Rookie cornerback Justin Gilbert will receive his first playing time of preseason after missing the game in Detroit with a groin injury. Gilbert will replace the injured Buster Skrine, who’s dealing with a thumb injury.

Gilbert has flashed signs of promise. He’s bigger than advertised and has speed that jumps out at you.

The defensive line has suddenly become an area of concern. Desmond Bryant was being counted on after having a heart problem surgically corrected, but he’s facing possible surgery for a broken wrist. Billy Winn is listed as a starting end, but he’s missed much of camp with an injury and needs work.

Outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo has shown improvement from an unspectacular rookie season in camp, and he opened with a sack against the Lions. The defense needs someone to step up as a dominant pass rusher, and Mingo might be the only answer.

Another interesting defensive battle is at inside linebacker. Karlos Dansby is set as one starter, but Craig Robertson is contending with rookie Chris Kirksey at the other spot. Kirskey is better in coverage, an area that Robertson struggled with last season.

Pettine indicated that Kirksey and Robertson could be used in a dual role.