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Browns guard Joel Bitonio wants healthy season, improved performance and, most importantly, more wins

Left guard Joel Bitonio isn’t a selfish guy.

Left guard Joel Bitonio isn’t a selfish guy.
Most offensive linemen aren’t. How can you be when your entire job description is to sacrifice your body, and glory, to keep the quarterback safe and let the running back rack up the statistics?
Bitonio provided a glimpse into that personality Sunday when asked about returning to the lineup after missing six games last year and finishing the season on injured reserve.
“My favorite thing is just not feeling like I’m letting the team down,” Bitonio said on a conference call. “When you are not playing and you are a guy that is supposed to be out there, you feel like you are letting a guy like Joe (Thomas, left tackle) down, you are letting the quarterback, last year like Josh (McCown), down. You are letting those guys down, you are not helping the team.”
Bitonio does take personal gratification from being back on the field for his third season — all as a starter. He was the No. 35 pick out of Nevada in 2014.
“For me, there is no better feeling than scoring a touchdown,” he said.
The payoff Friday in the otherwise ugly 30-13 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was Robert Griffin III’s 50-yard touchdown pass to receiver Josh Gordon.
“There’s nothing better than being like, ‘Man, that is what you do. That is what you work for. That is all the hours you put in the weight room,’ just to see plays like that,” Bitonio said. “Just to be out there and see that has been really cool, and hopefully, we get a win one of these weeks coming up and really cement me being back.”
Bitonio’s 2015 was a letdown for more than just the ankle injuries.
Former coach Mike Pettine predicted he’d be the team’s breakout player. While Bitonio was solid in his time on the field, he didn’t make a jump from his rookie season, when he was voted to the Pro Football Writers of America All-AFC team.
“Super frustrating,” he said. “I injured my same ankle twice. Same injury, pretty much, back-to-back.
“Just the whole season. My rookie year we were 7-9 and then last year we went 3-13.”
He said his ankle is 100 percent and he trained hard in the offseason.
“You push yourself to a certain extent by pushing myself to be the best Joel that I can be, but also to improve the team as much as possible,” Bitonio said. “I feel like going into Year 3 that I have learned the NFL game a lot more. As a rookie, you are thinking about which way am I going on this play and who am I blocking, and now I am thinking about how am I going to block this guy instead of so much the scheme and things like that.
“I think it has been a really good preseason for me and training camp. I felt strong, but once we get into the season, we will see how that plays out.”
Hal Hunter, the new line coach, tweaked some of Bitonio’s technique and has been impressed.
“He’s a tough guy, competitive guy, technically improving,” Hunter said. “He understands the system, he’s smart.”
Hunter coached four-time Pro Bowl left guard Kris Dielman in San Diego and said Bitonio has similar talent.
“He has all the makings of being a really quality offensive lineman in the NFL,” Hunter said. “Good, tough, hard-nosed guard. Where he goes from there, it’ll be more up to him than it is up to me.”
“Bitonio is hands down going to be one of the best guards in the NFL,” defensive end Xavier Cooper said. “He’s really, really good.”
Two straight coaching staffs and plenty of teammates believe Bitonio has the skill to be among the best in the league.
“You hear about Pro Bowls and you hear about things,” he said. “My goal is just to be the best I can be out there. If that stuff comes, I am going to be very happy with those accolades, but I am trying to do as much as I can do to help us win games and everything else is going to fall into place. I will be happy when we win some more games than we did last year.”
Bitonio is considered the second-best lineman on the Browns behind Thomas, a nine-time Pro Bowler. The left side and right guard John Greco have been joined in the starting lineup by a giant pair of question marks in center Cameron Erving and right tackle Austin Pasztor. They are replacing free agent departures Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz.
Erving has been up-and-down in the preseason, and Pasztor struggled in pass protection Friday against the Buccaneers as Griffin was sacked five times in the first half. Bitonio and Greco are helping Erving make the protection calls, and Bitonio is trying to adjust to a new partner on his right.
The uncertainty on the line is one of many reasons the Browns are predicted to finish last in the AFC North again and struggle to surpass the 3-13 record of a year ago. Bitonio expects better.
“I think the whole attitude of the team is much improved,” he said. “The preseason hasn’t gone win and loss the way we want it to, but we see signs of hope. It takes time to put your stamp on a team, but Coach (Hue) Jackson has really done a good job of stressing the little details, the important things, the way we work as a team, the way we practice. There are just so many improvements in that aspect, and it seems like the team is a lot closer.
“We are ready to take the next step. Is it going to be Week 1? Is it going to be Week 2? That is our goal. We want to win as soon as possible. There is hope around this team. There are guys that are working, guys that are doing everything possible to put the Cleveland Browns in the best spot we can. I know this team goes out every week expecting to win, and we are doing everything on our part to do that.”
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him @scottpetrak on Twitter.

Browns writer for The Chronicle-Telegram and The Medina Gazette. Proud graduate of Northwestern University. Husband and stepdad. Avid golfer who needs to hit the range to get down to a single-digit handicap. Right about Johnny Manziel, wrong about Brandon Weeden. Contact Scott at 440-329-7253, or email and follow him on and Twitter.

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