Joel Bitonio experienced a series of events Sunday that he’ll likely never again endure.
The Pro Bowl left guard was upended by an opponent, and his up-in-the-air feet caught the football, knocking it out of the arms of teammate Nick Chubb. The New England Patriots, the Browns’ opponent Sunday, celebrated a Dont’a Hightower fumble-return touchdown seconds later.
That play alone might have made Bitonio wonder: what just happened?
But it only devolved from there. After the strange play that gave New England its first touchdown early in the first quarter, Bitonio took the field again and faced a defensive front the Patriots typically don’t deploy. As such, the alignment of his assigned target, Patriots defensive lineman Lawrence Guy, was wider than usual, making for a more difficult block for Bitonio.
It wasn’t an impossible request; it just opened the door for the play to be blown up.
That’s what happened, as Guy raced around Bitonio directly into the path of Jarvis Landry, who was crossing behind the line in a jet-sweep direction. Guy stepped into his path and found the ball, which had been tossed forward by quarterback Baker Mayfield on a play that relies heavily on timing. The result: an interception and Cleveland’s third straight turnover in as many offensive plays.
“I think I had probably three of the weirdest plays I’ve been involved in in like a five-play period for me,” Bitonio said. “So that was weird for me, but it just comes down to executing a little better. My foot caused a fumble, which I’ve never seen that happen before. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do in that situation, do I want to try and run through him a little more or what, but that was a one-in-a-million play.
“The shovel pass, I’m supposed to get back blocking that guy. He penetrated a little more than I thought he was going to penetrate. If I executed better and maybe shot out at him a little quicker, we could’ve had a better run there.”
Bitonio mentioned three plays, though, meaning we have one left to get to, which wiped out what would have been a key pickup but also doesn’t look egregious upon further review. Bitonio was flagged for a hold on a screen to Chubb that gained 12 of the 15 yards required for a first down early in the second quarter.
As the tape shows, Bitonio did get an arm into Patriots defensive lineman Deatrich Wise, but he slowed Wise’s rush at most. And had he not gotten an arm into Wise, it likely would have worked out even better for the Browns, because Wise might have been a yard even deeper and further from Chubb, who was headed in the opposite direction with the reception.
“I had a hold on a screen play which, in reality, I shouldn’t have let him beat me inside to put me in that situation,” Bitonio said. “Do I think I held him? No. But I shouldn’t have been in that situation to begin with. I should be up the field, the ball would have been gone. I tried to let him go and turn around and screen him off but the ref thought I hooked him I guess there. That was bad.
“Some of those plays are plays that are going to happen once in your career and you have to really just move on. It is unfortunate that it cost us the ball a few time but you have to move on and make the best out of it.”
Check out photos of the Browns preparing for their game against the Broncos Sunday by team photographer Matt Starkey
Bitonio has been about as reliable as they come since the Browns selected him in the second round of the 2014 draft. That’s what makes those types of plays so surprising.
One might interpret the switches as creating instability and a lack of cohesion, which is typically paramount for an offensive line’s success. And the men up front didn’t have their best game Sunday, but didn’t feel awful about their performance.
“It is one of those things where the more you play together, the better you are going to get, but I do not think it is a continuity thing where we are like, ‘Man, we have not worked together enough on this block,’” Bitonio said. “We have to figure that out, and I thought we were prepared enough to go out there and play.”
Above all, they have another challenge to take on this week in Denver, which features edge rusher Von Miller, a freak of nature who once won primarily with his rare speed but has since added power to his repertoire. Bitonio mentioned Miller’s ability to win by using the long arm, a technique that can only be used with the proper amount of strength and leverage. Both McCray and right tackle Chris Hubbard will receive opportunities to impede Miller.
And Bitonio will keep doing as he has throughout his career, which has earned him league honors. He’ll just hope it won’t also earn him another forced fumble.