Joel Bitonio has seen it all in his eight seasons with the Browns, but he's never experienced a week like this.
ClevelandBrowns.com connected with Bitonio to get his thoughts on how the Browns respond from this latest dose of adversity and rally together for a big, national showcase matchup with the Las Vegas Raiders.
CB.com: How would you put this week into words?
Bitonio: It's been a week, that's for sure. Especially last year with the COVID stuff, we've experienced a little bit of it before, but losing over 20 of your guys for a game, that's a new one for sure. Coach (Kevin) Stefanski, Coach (Mike) Priefer now — he's kind of taken over head coaching duties when Coach isn't there — have really had us focused on the task at hand. That's trying to play our best game against the Raiders and get a win really no matter who's out there. The guys that are out there are prepared this week. We're getting ready to get out there and play a game.
CB.com: Is there a belief you can rally behind this adversity because you've been there before?
Bitonio: Of course. We feel confident in the guys we're putting out there. Honestly, you want your dogs, your guys who are there and are your starters and your best players, but the guys that are going have put in the work. We've got these things called opportunity periods where these guys get extra reps at the end of the practices with their position coaches. I saw Nick Mullens taking reps behind Baker (Mayfield) every day. It's on air, but they get these reps. They've seen a lot of the same defenses we've seen in practice. We have faith and we have confidence in the guys and we saw it last year in Pittsburgh, where we had a few of us out and the head coach was out. We've seen it before and hopefully we can come together and build off this and continue the rest of the season that way.
Check out exclusive photos from the practice fields at CrossCountry Mortgage Campus of the Browns preparing for their Week 15 game against the Las Vegas Raiders
CB.com: The offensive line has been hit pretty hard by this, but that's also nothing new for you. What do you like about the players who are poised to play Monday?
Bitonio: It's kind of the same thing. They've been working. Coach (Bill) Callahan and Coach (Scott) Peters really get the guys going and they've put in a lot of extra work with those guys. The guys are doing film work, they're doing extra on-field work and they're ready for the moment. Blake (Hance) has started a lot of games this year and has played a lot of meaningful football. Michael Dunn had to step in last year, and he's a guy that works so hard in practice. I do have confidence in our guys. I have confidence in our group. They're ready to play, they're ready for this moment and it's going to be fun to actually get out there and be with them and see them play a little bit.
CB.com: How much have you gotten to know Nick Mullens this year and what have you seen from him?
Bitonio: I've had dinner with him a few times at the team hotel on road trips. We had a little connection where he played for Coach (Kyle) Shanahan in San Francisco and I played with him here in Cleveland. We've had that little connection, so that brought up some conversations. He's a good guy, man, and he's a gamer. If you look at his stats and what he's done in his NFL career, his stats hold up with a lot of good players in this league. We have all the confidence in the world he can come out there and be a gamer for us and make some plays.
CB.com: What was your reaction when the game got delayed by two days?
Bitonio: I was slightly surprised because you never know what's going to happen in the NFL. I think it was a smart decision. You talk about player safety, and the NFL stresses football is family. I think it would have been a disservice to the players on both sides of the ball if they didn't postpone it a little bit. At the least, it lets some of the guys we're bringing off the street practice. Even if we don't get many guys back from the COVID list, it gives guys a chance to practice instead of just throwing them to the wolves. If you're the Raiders, do you want to play a team — this virus is obviously very contagious no matter if you're vaccinated or not — do you want to be on the field with the same group of guys that's shedding the virus? Those are all things they had to think of. I think it was a smart decision. It was a little surprising, but Coach said we're focused on one hour at a time this week because anything can change.
CB.com: You've been on the other side of this when you were on the COVID-19 list for last year's Wild Card win. What was that like to experience and how does that help you sympathize with all of the players who won't be able to play Monday?
Bitonio: It's the worst, especially if you're not feeling too bad, if it's a little sniffle or almost feels like allergies or something of that nature and you can't go out there and play. A lot of these guys are tough dudes that play through a lot of injuries and a lot of things in the past. To hold them out for this is very difficult. I was watching last year, and hopefully we can put on as good of a show as they did last year when I had to watch on the couch in the playoffs. It's tough, man, and these guys are competitive people. It's hard to be held back like that. It's definitely a tough situation. Hopefully we can put on a show and fight and get a win for them.
CB.com: What kind of challenge do the Raiders present?
Bitonio: They play really hard. I know their coordinator and D-line coach have their D-line playing at a high, high level. Their two defensive ends are probably one of the better defensive end combos in the NFL. We have it all cut out for us. We've been playing these two-gap, 3-4 teams like the Ravens the last couple of weeks. This is more of a penetrating defense and they play a little bit more with athletic guys inside. It's definitely a different challenge, and the main thing is how hard they play. They never stop and you have to block to the whistle. It'll be a big challenge for us.