In his fourth season with the Browns, Joel Bitonio is not only one of the longest-tenured members of the team, but also one of the oldest players on the entire roster.
His perspective is valued at a tough time during Cleveland's 2017 season, as the Browns enter Sunday's game against the Titans with an 0-6 record. He's been through some rough seasons, but his outlook with the current roster remains optimistic.
ClevelandBrowns.com caught up with Bitonio during his final preparations for Sunday's showdown with the Titans.
CB.com: You're sitting at 0-6 but it seems like optimism remains inside the locker room. What's it like from your perspective?
Bitonio: It's been as good as it can be. Everyone's disappointed with the start, overall, but you see light and you see some really positive things week to week. I don't think the scores necessarily resemble what's happened in the building. We have such a young team and coach (Hue) Jackson does a really good job of keeping us together and pushing us toward our goal of eventually being a winning team and fighting for division titles. It's been as good as it can be. I've been a part of a couple of tough teams and there were a few years where guys checked out but so far we're just turning along and trying to find our first win.
CB.com: With the youth of this team, how are you seeing it grow and develop and deal with the losing streak?
Bitonio: We are really young and a lot of guys come from winning programs. They're used to winning games, they're used to one guy being able to take over a game and win one for them. I think they're learning that hey, it's all about the details, it's all about the little things and we have to play as a team if we want to pull together and come away with a win. I think it's a learning process but I think they're growing. Coach said we don't really have any rookies anymore. Everybody's played six games and they're growing as a team. Eventually, this team is going to get older and we're still growing as a group. They're working hard. That's the one thing about the group. They don't know anything different. They just come out and work their tails off and have fun at practice and try to do everything in their part to get a win.
CB.com: You're only in your fourth season, but do you feel like one of the old guys?
Bitonio: Yeah, especially when you see so many new faces. When you're on a team with a bunch of vets and you're in your fourth year, you probably feel pretty young. We're such a young team and I'm probably, besides Joe (Thomas), one of the most tenured Browns here. I've been here longer than a lot of faces I see anyways, even if they're older than me. It kind of makes me feel like, yeah, I'm one of the older guys here. I try and help out and do what I can when I can. We have a lot of good leaders on this team and we're trying to grow as a team and keep improving.
CB.com: The offensive line dealt with a lot of injuries during the preseason but the group's been one of the most stable on the team during the season. How has that helped week to week?
Bitonio: It's been fun so far. It did take us a couple of games to really get in a rhythm. We were banged up during camp. I didn't practice as much as I wanted to. Joe (Thomas) was in and out. Once we finally got practices together and games together, you really learn how guys play. I think I'm finally getting used to how JC (Tretter) plays. We work on double-team blocks or how he communicates out there. I think there's still room for us to grow and we're going to try and be the veteran leadership of the offense. When you look in the huddle, you see first- and second-year players at the skill positions and the quarterback. You look at the O-line and we've got some experience there. We really do need to be on top of our game and be the best we can be to give our offense a fair shot.
CB.com: Is it still a surreal feeling to play next to Joe Thomas? Or has that passed now that you're a veteran?
Bitonio: It's still a cool thing. Not quite as star-struck. I'm not worried about every play like 'oh, I hope I don't mess something up for him.' Some day I'll tell my kids I played with a Hall of Famer. This guy was one of the best to ever do it and I got to play next to him.' It's been really cool. When you play next to good players, it helps you be a better player. I think that's one of the main things. I've just learned so many tricks of the trade from him. When you double-team with a Hall of Famer, the double-team is going to be a little better. It's been a blast. I'm pretty thankful I get to go out every day and suit up next to him.
CB.com: How much better is the run game than it was a few weeks ago?
Bitonio: We've started to get some yardage finally. I think it took a while. A lot of teams were like, 'hey, they've got a good O-line, they've got some good running backs, they're going to rely on the run game.' They sent guys in the box that we weren't accounting for and we weren't blocking well enough at some points. We're starting to turn that on and we're seeing a variety of runs -- outside runs, powers, inside runs. It's been good to get into a rhythm and hopefully we keep it up. As an O-lineman, you love when we run the ball and we're not dropping back 50 times a game. I think it also indicates some of those early games we were behind a little bit and we had to throw a little more than we wanted to. There were a few games where we did run the ball well yards-per-carry-wise but we only got 10-12 carries. To be a good running team and establish the run, you have to run 20-25 times a game.
CB.com: What's DeShone Kizer been like this week and where do you think his confidence is at?
Bitonio: Really good. I think he took a step back and took a deep breath and said, 'hey, this is what the NFL is about. This is what I need to worry about.' I think it was good for him to finally look back on the sideline and see Kevin (Hogan) out there and see some of the things he couldn't see in the heat of the moment. I think when you're in the heat of the moment, you're just trying to get to the next play. When you take a step back, you can see it as a whole. He's been great this week. He's come back with confidence and a little bit of swagger. He still has that swagger to him and I think he's ready to have a big week.
CB.com: There's been a lot of focus on Jurrell Casey this week, but what makes this entire Tennessee defense tough from your position?
Bitonio: Dick LeBeau is their coach. He's been doing it for a long time. They have some players up front. They have the two outside linebackers that rush the quarterback really well and Jurrell Casey kind of stirs the pot inside. They can line him up at the nose guard, both D-ends, both tackles. He's just a strong, quick, powerful player. Every team looks for that three-technique that runs this type of defense and he's their guy. I played against him in high school, so we go way back. We're both from Long Beach. It's been fun. I've played him every year I've been healthy. He's a good player. They do a lot of twisting and stunting, which for the offensive line, you have to sit back and see what's happening in front of you and not worry about just your own guy. It's going to be a really big challenge for us in protection.