Joel Bitonio has been the rock on Cleveland's offensive line, and that's nothing new for the sixth-year veteran.
Bitonio was named Tuesday as a first alternate for the 2020 Pro Bowl. If one of the three AFC guards pulls out of the game, Bitonio will be headed to the game for the second time in his career.
ClevelandBrowns.com caught up with Bitonio after the team's final practice heading into the Ravens game.
CB.com: This is obviously a must-win for you guys this week. What's the mindset going against one of the best teams in the NFL?
Bitonio: They're a great team. I think they've improved immensely since we played them earlier in the year. For us, we're treating it like a playoff game. We've kind of been in that mode. We haven't performed in the other two games we deemed as playoff games this year, but we're still alive, though. It's one of those things where we're focused on ourselves. The Ravens, their offense is a juggernaut and their defense has been playing with a lead, so they've been able to blitz and get after the passer. It's one of those things where we're going to try to control the ball and see what we can do out there.
CB.com: Odell Beckham Jr. mentioned it earlier this week. He didn't know if it was the Browns at their best or the Ravens at their worst in Week 4. Where do you come down on that?
Bitonio: I would say it was us at our best. We ran the ball well, we took our shots in the passing game when we had to, the defense had three turnovers. We took care of the ball for the most part. We turned the ball over once but we won the turnover battle. We kind of wore them down late in the game. It was a hot day and they were down a couple of D-linemen so it gave us a chance to run the ball and kind of impose our will late in the game.
CB.com: Nick Chubb had a long run in that game that was similar to the one in the second half against the Falcons last year. Is that one of those things you can sense is coming because the defense is worn down?
Bitonio: It's one of those things where you never know when the big one is going to pop, but if you feel like you're running the ball well, sometimes you have that opportunity. With Chubb, he's so explosive, so fast, he can kind of go to the house anytime he wants.
CB.com: Chubb's obviously running it well, but what has it been about this offensive line that's done such a good job in run blocking?
Bitonio: It's one of those things we've worked on. Coach (Jeff) Blasko and coach (James) Campen have done a great job of getting us in the right position, getting a good scheme going. When you have a guy like Nick and a guy like Kareem (Hunt) and Dontrell (Hilliard), all those guys run the ball so hard and break tackles. If you're just in a decent position, a lot of times they can make you right. We've continued to work it. We've done a little bit more of a zone scheme this year than we have in the past, and I think that's worked really well for us.
CB.com: With six different starting combinations on the O-line this year, what's been the biggest challenge?
Bitonio: It's getting the communication and your combination blocks. A lot of time you're double-teaming or working with somebody and you're switching between -- for me, Greg (Robinson), (Kendall) Lamm and J-Mac (Justin McCray). The right side has had a couple different guards, a couple different tackles. It's one of those things where you want to continue to get those reps in practice. Again, Campy has done a good job of rotating us in training camp and things of that nature to try to put us in position to where we've repped with those guys. It's just communication and making sure you know who you're with. Guys have certain limitations or do certain things better, so you work with that to perfect the scheme.
CB.com: JC Tretter has missed a bunch of practices the last few weeks because of his knee injury, but that hasn't seemed to hinder your chemistry.
Bitonio: Me and JC, I feel like we're connected. We know the lingo, we know how each other plays. I feel like we're pretty connected. We've done it for the last three years, almost 48 games now. Plus preseason, plus camp. I don't worry about that. I know he gets beat up but I know he'll be ready. Mentally, he's so sharp and he does everything in the meeting rooms so that he'll be ready to go on game day. It actually gives (Eric) Kush, myself, other guys to really try to learn the offense and understand points and things of that nature.
CB.com: You mentioned earlier this week that Tretter should have probably been in the Pro Bowl conversation. What's he improved most since he got here?
Bitonio: I would say his all-around game. He's always been a pretty good pass blocker from the time before I knew him, but he's been consistent and he's stayed on the field. He only had maybe nine or 10 starts before he got here. He's relatively stayed healthy, which, for him, has given him the chance to improve while he's out on the field. That comes from his run blocking, his understanding of the game, all those things. When you're not on the field, it's hard to continue to learn. If you're battling one or two games a year, you can't really improve on things you want to improve on.
CB.com: You were named a first alternate for the Pro Bowl. How does that feel and what does that say about the competition at guard in the AFC?
Bitonio: There's a lot of good guards here. It's definitely an honor for me to be recognized. It's one of those things where you want to get in and you want to be like, 'I was a first-ballot Pro Bowler.' You've got good guys. (Marshall) Yanda is playing on a great team and has been a great player for a long time. (David) DeCastro for Pittsburgh, they're fighting their butts off over there. Quenton Nelson is one of the better players in the league at the position. It's one of those things where, man, there's some stiff competition. It's an honor, it's really cool. The fans vote, the other players, the other coaches, and it's cool to be recognized by that. It helps when you've got a guy like Chubb running the ball well back there.
CB.com: Way back when during your rookie year, Joe Thomas was vouching for you to be in the Pro Bowl. Six years has passed since then and you're a regular in the conversation. How much better of a player are you since then?
Bitonio: I think as a rookie, I was playing next to (Alex) Mack and Joe Thomas. At that point, I was just playing as hard as I could play. That was my only mentality. I knew what I was doing, but I was just running around out there and trying to have fun and block people. I think my understanding of the game of football, especially in pass protection, has improved. My rookie year, it was a lot of outside zone, the boots that coach (Kyle) Shanahan runs with the Niners now. I was just being an athlete and running and blocking people. Now, it's like very much focused on technique and my pass protection has really improved for me.