By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
CLEVELAND: As quarterback Brandon Weeden thrust the ball forward with a long, awkward shovel pass in the fourth quarter, the announced crowd of 71,513 at FirstEnergy Stadium could practically hear the Browns’ three-game winning streak snap like a tree branch struck by a bolt of lightning.
Weeden’s blunder epitomized a second-half meltdown Sunday against the Detroit Lions. The Browns led by 10 points at halftime but were shut out in the final two quarters, thrashed by the Lions’ offense en route to a 31-17 loss.
On first-and-10 at the Lions’ 44-yard line with the Browns trailing 24-17, Weeden flipped the ball toward fullback Chris Ogbonnaya a split-second before defensive tackle C.J. Mosley grabbed Weeden’s left ankle and dragged him down. Weeden insisted he attempted to fling the ball over Ogbonnaya and out of bounds. But linebacker DeAndre Levy jumped in front of Ogbonnaya and intercepted the pass in front of the Lions bench at the Browns’ 49 with 4:36 remaining.
“It was just a boneheaded play,” said Weeden, who completed 26-of-43 passes (60.5 percent) for 292 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions, posting a passer rating of 76.9. “I was trying to make a play, trying to avoid a sack. But it doesn’t affect my confidence.”
The baffling decision certainly affected the outcome of the game, though. Seven plays later, the Lions sealed the victory with 2:01 left, when tight end Joseph Fauria beat the coverage of strong safety T.J. Ward and caught his third touchdown pass, a 10-yard scoring strike from quarterback Matthew Stafford. That final scoring drive was kept alive on third-and-3 at the Browns’ 31 when outside linebacker Quentin Groves drew a controversial roughing-the-passer penalty.
The Browns (3-3) squandered chances to improve to 4-2 for the first time since 2001 and prevail in four consecutive games for just the second time since 1999. They entered the weekend tied atop the AFC North standings, but their collapse allowed the Cincinnati Bengals (4-2) to capture sole possession of first place in the division.
“We tasted those last three weeks [of victory], and it tasted good,” inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said. “This is one that got away from us, but we clearly don’t think the confidence level is going anywhere.”
Weeden started Sunday for the first time since Sept. 15, when he sprained his right thumb in the fourth quarter against the Baltimore Ravens. Brian Hoyer replaced Weeden the following week and led the Browns to back-to-back wins before suffering a season-ending torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee Oct. 3 during the first quarter against the Buffalo Bills.
Weeden’s second chance as the starter didn’t work out the way he had hoped on the eve of his 30th birthday.
“We have 100 percent faith in him,” left guard John Greco said. “He’s trying to make plays back there. He’s doing what he thinks needs to be done and sometimes you just fall short.”
After the Browns fell behind 7-0, they charged back with 17 unanswered points in the second quarter. Levy intercepted another pass Weeden intended for Ogbonnaya with 8:44 left in the second quarter to end his career-best streak of 111 passes without a pick. Weeden bounced back during the next possession with a 2-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Greg Little. Billy Cundiff tacked on a 40-yard field goal with 8 seconds left before halftime, but the Browns never scored again.
The Browns had 16 carries for 115 yards in the first half, more rushing yards than they previously tallied in a game this season. However, they had just 11 rushing yards on five carries in the second half.
“The energy wasn’t there, and our head wasn’t in it and we had some bad plays,” said tight end Jordan Cameron, who committed a false-start penalty in each of the final two quarters. “I know I was part of a couple of them. We’ve got to come out and not get comfortable with the lead and really push it. When we get the lead, we’ve really got to step on their throats.”
Lions All-Pro wide receiver Calvin Johnson played through an injured right knee and caught only three passes for 25 yards. Running back Reggie Bush, though, picked up the slack by rushing for 78 yards on 17 carries to go along with five catches for 57 yards and a touchdown. Stafford repeatedly picked on inside linebacker Craig Robertson and torched his coverage on the way to 25-of-43 passing (58.1 percent) for 248 yards and four touchdowns with one interception for a rating of 95.9.
But Weeden and Co. offered no support when it mattered most. The Browns converted 5-of-14 third downs and allowed the Lions (4-2) to convert 8-of-14.
“We can’t put our defense in a bind like that,” Greco said. “We’ve got to keep sustaining drives and give them their rest.”
Weeden’s interceptions spoiled the Browns’ shot at going three consecutive games without a turnover, and the second pick proved to be a backbreaker. Wide receiver Josh Gordon was the primary target during the play.
“It was really Josh on a dig route,” Weeden said. “They were sneaking underneath, so I could’ve gone to Obie or over the ball to Jordan [Cameron]. So I was working kind of a triangle and got flushed and tried to get it to Obie late, but it was too [late].
“It all happened so fast. You’re trying to make a play. You want to be smart, don’t take the sack, but I’ve just got to fall on it, take the sack and move on. That play’s on me.”
The Browns have led at halftime in all six games this season, meaning they’ve wasted three of those halftime leads. The Lions outscored them 24-0 in the second half.
“We just didn’t execute, didn’t do the things we needed to do,” Weeden said. “It starts with me. I’ve got to play better, eliminate the mistake obviously at the end there, try to play 60 minutes. That’s what it boils down to.”
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.