By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
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BEREA: Although Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden turns 30 Monday, he smirks while insisting he feels like he’s 25.
But the true key to Weeden maintaining his youthful spirit on the eve of his birthday lies in another number — zero. It’s the amount of turnovers the Browns have committed in the past two games.
As much chatter as there has been lately about Weeden needing to get rid of the ball quicker upon re-entering the starting lineup, his primary objective is to remain free of turnovers when the Browns (3-2) face the Detroit Lions (3-2) at 1 p.m. Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium. Weeden has thrown 99 consecutive passes without an interception and needs 12 more to surpass his career-best streak of 110 in a row without a pick.
Last season, ex-Browns coach Pat Shurmur repeatedly stressed the importance of Weeden avoiding interceptions. Weeden, though, believes worrying about them can do more harm than good.
“It’s like golf and shanks. It’s one of those words you just don’t really say. For a quarterback, the interception word, you just want to leave it out of your vocabulary,” said Weeden, who threw 14 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions last season as a rookie. “I think last year, it was maybe more conservative. This year, this is an aggressive style of offense. I think they want us to play aggressive and be smart. So you have to pick your spots when to be aggressive and when to be smart.”
When they face the Lions, the Browns will try to go without a turnover in three consecutive games for the first time since 2008. Only eight teams in the NFL have fewer giveaways this season than the Browns’ seven.
“This offense with all the weapons we have, if we can take care of the football and move forward — we’ve done a good job of it the last few weeks — I just think it allows you to have a chance to win the game if you can do that, especially in critical situations,” said Weeden, the 22nd overall pick in last year’s draft. “If it’s third-and-10 and nothing’s there, don’t force the ball, check it down, punt. In this league, punting is not always the worst thing. As long as you have the ball on fourth down, you give yourself a chance.”
Weeden hasn’t committed a turnover since the season opener Sept. 8 against the Miami Dolphins, when he threw three interceptions, two of which deflected off the hands of his receivers. He didn’t have one against the Baltimore Ravens on Sept. 15, when he inadvertently smacked his throwing hand against the helmet of left guard John Greco in the fourth quarter and suffered a sprained right thumb.
The injury opened the door for Brian Hoyer to start at quarterback, and he led the Browns to back-to-back wins after they began the season 0-2 with Weeden as the starter. Coach Rob Chudzinski started Hoyer on Oct. 3 against the Buffalo Bills, even though Weeden had been medically cleared to play. But Hoyer suffered a season-ending torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee early in the first quarter, forcing Weeden into action with the Browns trailing 7-0.
They ultimately extended their winning streak to three games with a 37-24 win over the Bills partly because of Weeden’s turnover-free performance. Weeden completed 13-of-24 passes (54.2 percent) for 197 yards and a touchdown, posting a passer rating of 95.3.
“The most important thing we’ve done the last two weeks is that we’ve not turned the ball over, and obviously Brandon is a part of that,” offensive coordinator Norv Turner said. “He played [61 snaps against the Bills], and we had no turnovers while he was in.”
An asterisk, though, is involved. Bills defensive end Jerry Hughes strip-sacked Weeden late in the third quarter, but Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas recovered the fumble. Weeden has taken 16 sacks in three games, which explains why Browns coaches, players and fans are hoping he quickens his release after watching Hoyer pass with a sense of urgency.
Still, Weeden must strike a balance between getting rid of the ball quickly and being haunted by haste decisions. Although Hoyer started the turnover-free streak Sept. 29 in a 17-6 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, his quick decisions contributed to his interceptions the previous week in a 31-27 triumph against the Minnesota Vikings.
Backup quarterback Jason Campbell, who’s 31-40 as a starter, knows the balancing act Weeden is facing can be difficult. The Lions are tied for fifth in the NFL with 11 takeaways this season.
“He knows he needs to try to get the ball out quicker. He understands that,” Campbell said. “But people have to understand Brian and Brandon are two different people. Brandon’s arm is strong, so he believes he can hit those down-the-field throws. He doesn’t come down to check downs fast because sometimes it doesn’t matter how far it goes, he believes he can hit that throw.
“It happens to a lot of guys that have strong arms. Even when I was young, it took me two years before I started learning about a check down. I was always like, ‘I’m trying to hit the downfield throw. I’m not trying to be the check-down man.’ Over time, I learned those check downs are just as important as hitting a 20-yard throw because a 5-yard completion can turn into 15, can turn into 20.”
The Browns hope watching Hoyer will help Weeden figure it all out in a hurry. Turner insists Weeden made good decisions against the Bills, even though Browns fans booed him for them.
“A lot was made of the first two plays that he was in there,” Turner said. “One was a screen where he had to throw the ball away and the other one was completely covered and there really wasn’t much he could have done, so he made good decisions on both those plays. The thing that was important to me is when Brandon got comfortable playing again, he made all the key plays down the stretch.”
If Weeden can continue to do that and sidestep backbreaking miscues, the final game of his 20s could be a priceless gift and the Browns could earn their best record through six games since 2001.
The Browns signed wide receiver Charles Johnson off the practice squad of the Green Bay Packers on Saturday and placed Hoyer on season-ending injured reserve.
Hoyer is scheduled to have his torn ACL surgically repaired Friday at the Cleveland Clinic, Chudzinski said.
Johnson, a seventh-round pick in this year’s draft, has taken Hoyer’s place on the 53-man roster. The 6-foot-2, 215-pound Johnson compiled 128 receptions for 2,229 yards and 31 touchdowns in two seasons at Division II Grand Valley State.
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.