The Washington Redskins have their first big roster cut coming up, a quarterback fresh off a bad week and important decisions to be made at running back, linebacker, the offensive line and other areas. So while it's still preseason, the Redskins face an important work day tonight when they're in Cleveland to play the Browns.

It's the third of four preseason games, but by the time the Los Angeles Rams come to RFK Stadium next Friday, the Redskins will be in something closer to a regular season dress rehearsal. For a lot of young Redskins -- and perhaps some older ones as well -- tonight could be a make-or-break chance.

"We'll still be making evaluations after the Cleveland game," Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs said, "but this one is certainly important. We've got a lot of decisions that have to be made and that's the most important thing a coaching staff has to do in training camp. We just have to keep working and hope we make the right ones."

While making decisions, Gibbs also wants to get his offense back in gear. The Redskins have only 117 yards on the ground after two games and quarterback Mark Rypien is coming off an equally bad night -- 11 of 20 for 162 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions.

"I sat in the film room and kicked myself this week," Rypien said. "You sit there and watch a play and say, 'That was me?' You know you've got to do better and all you can do is go back out there and do it."

With rosters reduced from 80 to 60 by Tuesday, the game will be one final chance for several players. It's a different kind of chance for others, and Redskins coaches will be following the performance of several players, including middle linebacker Kurt Gouveia, who is threatening to unseat starter Greg Manusky.

And top draft choice Andre Collins is getting a second straight start at outside linebacker opposite Wilber Marshall and appears on his way to getting a start there in the Sept. 9 regular season opener against the Phoenix Cardinals.

Then there's the offensive line, where some of the toughest decisions of this training camp will have to be made. The Redskins are likely to keep seven linemen and at the moment have 11 candidates for the jobs. Starters Jim Lachey, Ed Simmons, Mark Schlereth, Russ Grimm and Jeff Bostic seem certain to make the team, as is ace backup Raleigh McKenzie, a de facto starter.

That takes care of six of the seven slots and leaves four players -- veterans Joe Jacoby and Ray Brown, Plan B signee Mark Adickes and rookie Mo Elewonibi -- competing for one spot. The Redskins also think highly of all four as well as ninth-round draft choice Tim Moxley of Ohio State.

One solution might eventually be to trade an offensive lineman to get an experienced cornerback, but the problem with that is two-fold: First, Gibbs is steadfastly opposed to trading his veteran players; second, team sources say no one has offered them a proven cornerback.

Jacoby, 31, will make his first appearance of the summer after having made a near miraculous recovery from reconstructive surgery on his left knee. Line coach Jim Hanifan said he'll get Jacoby into the game some time in the second quarter "and maybe try to run a couple of plays for him. I went through this once before when {Dan} Dierdorf was coming back and it's a nervous time. Until they get out there and get hit a couple of times, you never know how it's going to go."

Jacoby also may be nervous, but it has been hard to notice this week. "So far so good," he said, "but I really won't know until I get out there. I don't see any reason there's going to be a problem."

Likewise, it's a big night for Gouveia, the fourth-year linebacker who made six unassisted tackles last week and appears close to finally cracking the starting lineup. He has been there before, and just when it has looked as if his time had arrived, he has been sent back to the bench by injuries.

Starting may seem less important in this era of rotating defenses when middle linebackers are sometimes off the field for second-down plays anyway. Gouveia disagrees.

"It's important to start," he said. "Everyone wants to start. It's like being president of a company. It seems like every time I've had a chance to start, something has happened to send me back into the second row. I've had a good camp, but I had a good camp last year, too. I don't know if I can say it's my time. It seems like I've always had to prove myself. BYU was my only scholarship offer out of high school and I never expected to be drafted."

He was drafted in the eighth round in 1986 and Redskins General Manager Charley Casserly calls him "the best college player I've ever scouted." Whether he wins the job outright or not, he'll play a lot this year as one of the pass-coverage linebackers. But his emergence comes at a time when the Redskins don't seem particularly pleased with Manusky.

The offensive questions are even tougher to answer. Gibbs has kept a lot of his regular season offensive sets confined to the practice field, but he says that's no reason for the problems.

"We're calling plays that ought to move the ball down the field," he said. "When you're not executing the plays, it doesn't matter what you're calling."

Rypien shoulders some of that blame, especially for the two interceptions that nearly gave the Steelers the game last week. But Gibbs said everything is connected and the Redskins may have trouble passing because they've gotten nothing out of their running game.

Coaches and various team sources say the blame can be spread around -- to an offensive line that at times has not done a good job and to backs that haven't always hit the holes that were opened.

"You can't blame it on any person," said running back Gerald Riggs, who gained 23 yards on seven carries. "It was a lot of different things and I really believe it's stuff that'll get worked out. We've worked hard in camp and we'll keep at it. We'll get the job done."

Rypien: "Defense and special teams carried us last week. Now, we have to pick it up. We're not worried. The thing we can't do is turn the ball over. If we do that, we're going to make enough plays."

Earnest Byner, who missed last week's game with a sore hip, will return tonight to play against his former teammates. He gained 27 yards on five carries in the opener and another good night would certainly enhance his chances of starting the regular season opener.

This game may mean more to Byner than to any of the other Redskins veterans. He was the centerpiece of the Cleveland offense for five years and admitted "there'll definitely be a few memories. It's going to seem weird coming out of the visiting locker room. But after you get started, you just think about what you have to do."

The story may change by the end of the night when a lot of his teammates will know a lot more about their futures. "You don't even allow yourself to think about it," rookie running back Brian Mitchell said. "You're aware of the people around you and how many spots are open, but you'll go crazy trying to guess what the coaches are thinking. You just go bust your tail and try to make someone notice you."