Here's to the next 100.
Joel Bitonio's 100th start is in the rearview mirror, and the veteran guard is showing no signs of slowing down. In fact, he might just be playing the best football of his eight-year career.
ClevelandBrowns.com caught up with Bitonio as the team wrapped up its preparations for Sunday's showdown with the Arizona Cardinals.
CB.com: You started your 100th game AND turned 30 last week. Do you feel any different?
Bitonio: No, I don't think so. It was a good week last week. I got to see my family and celebrate my birthday. Obviously I wish we had gotten a win. It feels good, man. Not too much older. Just another game older. It feels good to be back out there and focus on trying to beat the Cardinals.
CB.com: Do these milestones make you take a second to think about what lies ahead in the future?
Bitonio: It's hard for me to look too far ahead because we have games every week. It is cool. I see 100 games and I'm like, man, I'm in my eighth year now and I'm pretty dang confident I won't get another 100 games. I think later on in the offseason, you'll look back and kind of see where you're at.
CB.com: A lot of people who watch offensive line play for a living say you're playing the best football of your career. Do you agree with that assessment?
Bitonio: I feel really good. Any lineman you ask, there's always something you want to clean up. We have a really good scheme right now, and I think I'm able to use my athletic ability to run outside zone but also pull, get in the open field on screens and things of that nature. We're really taking advantage of our opportunities. It's been good for me. I think there's a couple of little things in pass protection that I want to keep cleaning up but we're working at it. Coach (Bill) Callahan and Coach (Scott) Peters and the O-line and Coach (Kevin) Stefanski calling the plays has put us in really good position. I think it's a combination of everything. It's an imperfect balance of the longer you can play and learn and your body stays healthy. As long as you can stay in those golden years, I feel like I'm in a good spot right now and hopefully I can keep going.
CB.com: What's it been like dealing with all of the injuries at tackle that basically date back to the second quarter of Week 1?
Bitonio: The one positive is those guys work their butts off and that helps a lot. Blake (Hance) has stepped in and he's not even really a tackle but he's playing tough. He had some really good plays this last game. We ran the ball really well and he was fighting against (Joey) Bosa, who is one of the best D-Ends in the league. James (Hudson III) is learning, and with Coach Callahan he gets all that extra work in. Him and Scott Peters and (offensive quality control assistant Jonathan DeCoster) have really put in the time. I think they're just learning, and the more they play, the more comfortable they'll get. To have those guys ready and the way they've stepped up pretty much all season has been a true testament to their work ethic.
CB.com: It seems like the rushing attack, in particular, hasn't been affected.
Bitonio: I think it's the detail we come across. Coach Callahan and Coach Stefanski and (offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt) make sure we're as detailed as possible with every combination block. When you put a guy in there, they know exactly what they have to do. They might be a different body or have different athleticism, but they know exactly what they do and what they're supposed to accomplish. Those guys have really come in and taken it. Having Nick (Chubb) and Kareem (Hunt) back there really helps the run game as well.
CB.com: Speaking of Nick, he won't be out there Sunday, but you guys still have Kareem and the others.
Bitonio: Nick's one of the best guys in football, and you never want to see him not play. He brings it for us. Kareem and (Demetric) Felton and D'Ernest (Johnson) are all going to be ready to get their carries. Kareem is used to getting 20 carries a game from back in the day, so he'll be ready for the workload and he'll be running angry.
CB.com: The offense had 42 points and 500+ yards in Los Angeles. What can be even better this week?
Bitonio: I think overall red zone efficiency. We had to kick a field goal once and we turned it over on downs. With Coach Stefanski, we're going to go for it on fourth downs, so we need to convert those. We haven't been able to do it at a super high rate yet, so we want to work on that. When it's closing time, we've got to find a way to get a first down and get a final drive to win a game. We had two situations late in the game where we didn't capitalize and that's something we've really focused on this week.
CB.com: A lot has changed with how coaches approach fourth downs since you entered the league. What do you think of it?
Bitonio: It's really nice. It opens up the playbook. You get a third-and-5, and you don't always have to pass the ball in those situations. You can run the ball a little bit and do different things. Now, if we're past the 50 and it's fourth down, unless it's fourth-and-10, we're feeling like we're going to go for it. We just know don't run off the field. I've been ready and trying to learn to stay on the field and try to execute the best play possible.
CB.com: The Cardinals are known a lot for their offense but it really seems like the defense has improved. What have you seen?
Bitonio: They've got athletes everywhere. It starts up front with J.J. (Watt) and Chandler (Jones). Those two guys really create havoc in the pass game and run game. J.J. Watt doesn't have the stats this year, but I think he's been just as active as he normally is. Then they have these athletes at linebacker that are like hybrid guys that are 6-4, 230, 240, 250. They can run, they can play the edge, they can play at linebacker and they can drop in coverage. It gives them a lot of options. They're kind of multiple in their fronts and it just gives them a lot of ability. Budda Baker in the back end is the playmaker that stirs it for them. They've got players at every level and they're playing really hard right now. It's going to be a tough challenge for us.
CB.com: Can you put your finger on the one thing Stefanski has done to help the team avoid consecutive losses?
Bitonio: I don't know if there's one thing. He's the same guy every week and what he focuses on week to week is the ball, the work, improving ourselves and attacking what's in front of us. That's just been his mentality week in and week out.
CB.com: You've got another game in four days after this one. Is there anything you did this week differently to prepare yourself?
Bitonio: You try and start getting your sleep and stuff like that. Honestly, it's such a week-to-week business. You focus on this week and hopefully you get three days where you can get your body right.