It'll hard to find anyone on the field Sunday more fired up than Joel Bitonio.
The longest tenured Browns player will make his NFL playoff debut one week after COVID-19 forced him to the sidelines. It will be a great sight to see for multiple reasons, as Bitonio will help stabilize an offensive line that has dealt with all sorts of adversity has continued to play at an elite level.
ClevelandBrowns.com caught up with Bitonio after Friday's practice, his first of the week.
CB.com: How's it feel to be back on the field?
Bitonio: I'm feeling pretty good. It was good to run around and get a good Friday practice in. I feel good, not too tired or anything. We'll see when we play the game, but overall I'm feeling good.
CB.com: Take us through what last Sunday was like for you.
Bitonio: It was definitely tough. You want to be there with your teammates and participate. After that first snap when the ball went over his head, I was pretty pumped for our guys. Nothing went wrong from that point on. It was fun to watch. I was joking with some people that it's a lot easier to watch when you're up 35-7 or 35-10 than if it was a close game. Once we won the game, in my head I was thinking, "What do I have to do to get back?" I'm proud of those guys. They fought their butts off and now I'm ready to be back out there with them.
CB.com: As a player, you're a little more used to being in that position because of injuries. Have you talked with Coach Kevin Stefanski about his experience?
Bitonio: We hadn't talked about it. I know he was busy getting the game plan ready. When I was injured, I knew I was injured and I couldn't play. It's hard in these situations because I felt like nothing was going to keep me from playing in that game. That was the hard part. Usually when I'm sitting at home watching, I realize, "Hey, I can't walk" or something's not right, so that was a little different. It was fun to watch in the sense we handled our business and got a win.
CB.com: What did it mean to you to see Michael Dunn and Blake Hance fill in so well for you?
Bitonio: It was awesome. Dunn, it's a testament to him really, and the guy he is and the work he's put in. I know he came in early August here and really since that day, he's put in work. He's always been a guy that wants to work beforehand or work after. It all came to fruition for him. He was on practice squad all year and ends up activated because of the injuries and then he's the next man up. All of a sudden, he has to play in the playoff game, the biggest game in the last 20 years, and it was impressive. He played so well. The thing I took away was how hard he played. He just played with such a passion. We talked before and after the game and I was obviously disappointed he got banged up, but just pumped for the way he played. Blake, I met on a Zoom call the night before the first Steelers game. I was just like, "Who's Blake?" For him to come in, that was crazy as well. I think him and JC (Tretter) just had to communicate and make sure both were on the same page.
CB.com: Did anything about how the team played Sunday surprise you?
Bitonio: The blowout was a little surprising. I had faith we could win a game. Coach has really stressed it's all about the ball all season. We joke around that tips and overthrows never find the ground in the NFL. I was screaming that every time we had a tip or something like that. Those don't find the ground, and we had all of those interceptions. When you're +5 in the turnover margin, you win 99.99999 percent of those games. I had faith we could win the game, but going up 35-7 was not expected.
CB.com: How has the offensive line dealt with so many injuries but still maintained the same level of play?
Bitonio: It starts with the coaching staff and the depth we have on this team. Really, the guys who are in there, too, are important. We've missed guys here and there where Jack (Conklin) has missed a game, but then Wyatt (Teller) is there next to him. So when a guy like (Chris Hubbard) has to fill in, there's still a starter there. For my game, Jedrick (Wills Jr.) and JC were there, so Dunn feels a little more comfortable. The coaches get these guys in the right position to play and the players go out there and execute. It's been fun to watch. We've had some years in the past where it's been a struggle if someone goes down. O-line is a tough position to play all 16 games, 17 now, and you need those guys who can come in and fill in for a game or two.
CB.com: What does it mean to you to get your first playoff experience in the Divisional Round?
Bitonio: It's exciting. I was ready to do it after we beat Pittsburgh in the regular season but I'm ready now. I've had a couple of weeks to get my body right and my mind right. You've got to beat the best, and they're the best team in the NFL. It'll be fun for us to go out there and take on that challenge.
CB.com: So much attention gets put on their offense, but what is it about their defense that makes them a challenge?
Bitonio: They have playmakers at every level. Chris Jones and Frank Clark up front are kind of the guys that get it done on the inside. In my opinion, Chris Jones is one of the better D-tackles in the game. He has size, power, quickness. On the back end, Tyrann Mathieu, he makes plays for them and gets them in the right position. They're opportunistic, too. They're about the football. Sometimes they give up some yards, but when they have to make a play, they seem to make a play for that team. Until someone beats them, I'm sure they're the favorites.
CB.com: What's it like to take a mostly healthy team into Arrowhead after a normal week of practice?
Bitonio: We brought in some reinforcements. It's great to have Denzel (Ward) and Kevin Johnson back. I think it's been three weeks of the secondary being beat up or on the COVID list. Obviously we're missing OV (Olivier Vernon) and guys on IR, but we have our whole platoon of guys, and I know we're ready to go out, compete and try to get a win.