DENVER — When left guard Joel Bitonio’s right foot caused running back Nick Chubb to fumble on his first carry last week against the New England Patriots, the Browns should’ve known it wasn’t going to be their day. Not only was the play as fluky as they come — Bitonio was flipped in the air by submarining linebacker Kyle Van Noy and his cleat pried Chubb’s fingers off the ball — it involved arguably the offense’s two best players this season and was returned for a touchdown by linebacker Dont’a Hightower.
Of course, the Browns lost 27-13 to drop to 2-5. And the bizarre fumble was only the start of the nightmare for Chubb and Bitonio.
Chubb fumbled on his next carry. And Bitonio was supposed to block defensive lineman Lawrence Guy on Baker Mayfield’s shovel pass that was intercepted and he was called for holding on a successful screen pass.
Everyone connected with the Browns believes completely the blunders won’t happen again. They also expect the performances of Chubb and Bitonio to be even better than usual Sunday against the Broncos as the Browns try to right the ship and save the season.
“I feel like he’s got a lot of steam and a lot of aggression towards this game coming up,” receiver Rashard Higgins said of Chubb.
Receiver Odell Beckham Jr. first predicted pain for the Broncos in the minutes following the loss to the Patriots, saying they were “going to be in trouble” facing a determined Chubb.
“Chubb, he runs hard no matter what,” Bitonio said. “After he fumbled he ran even harder than he’s ran before. And I know that guy’s going to bounce back. There’s no question in my mind he’ll have another big game.”
Chubb started his redemption tour late in the first quarter in New England.
He tried to rebound immediately from the “foot fumble” by channeling Jim Brown and refusing to go down on his next carry. He started right, cut left, broke tackles and appeared destined for the end zone when Jonathan Jones caught up and chopped the ball loose.
Chubb was devastated. He didn’t fumble in 212 touches as a rookie last year and suddenly had lost the ball three times in two games. He walked straight to the sideline as Beckham and Mayfield tried to recover the ball in the scrum.
After pep talks from teammates and coaches, Chubb quickly rediscovered his focus. He rushed 18 times for 88 yards the rest of the game.
“I put it on myself that I would not let it happen again and continue working hard,” he said. “That’s what I did. I went out on the field and let loose. I just wanted to win that game so bad because I felt like I let my team down.
“I remember feeling how I felt, and I don’t want to feel like that ever again, and I’m going to do whatever I can not to.”
Chubb has been spectacular all season, ranking third in the NFL with 738 rushing yards. He has six touchdowns, and his 5.5 average per carry leads NFL running backs. He has three 100-yard games and has averaged 126.3 in the past four games.
“Nick is a great player,” coordinator Todd Monken said. “It is just unfortunate the way it turned out in that game for him because no one is more conscientious and no one works harder.”
Chubb is Example A of what the organization wants in its players, largely because of his dedication, work ethic and consistent effort. If it’s possible to run with more purpose, he expects to do so against a Denver run defense ranked 19th with 109.8 yards a game.
“They’re very good. They’re very big, very physical,” Chubb said. “They run to the ball and they play hard, so it’s going to be a challenge for us, but we look forward to it.”
Bitonio will be leading the way.
He and center JC Tretter have been stabilizing forces on a line that continues to search for answers and could see more lineup changes vs. the Broncos. Pro Football Focus ranks Bitonio fifth among guards in the league, just like last season.
“Joel is an outstanding football player, one of our team leaders and someone we count on in a lot of ways not only as a player, and he carries the message for us to the staff,” Monken said.
PFF graded Bitonio 65.1 against the Patriots and 80.0 overall, a bump from 74.7 last year.
“I feel like it’s been fine,” he said. “We’ve had 500 plays or whatever so far this year, you have five or six where you’re like, sh–. That sh– happens. But there’s room for improvement.
“I feel like I’ve been solid this year and I feel like there’s always room for improvement, you’re always chasing perfection as an offensive lineman, but I feel it’s been as good as ever.”
Bitonio had his hands full with the Rams’ Aaron Donald and the 49ers’ Nick Bosa, but most guards do. He’s consistently effective, which made the flurry of bad luck and poor technique against the Patriots stand out even more.
The third turnover in three offensive snaps was the Guy interception. Bitonio was supposed to block him after left tackle Justin McCray pulled, but Guy penetrated and beat receiver Jarvis Landry to the spot. A series later, Bitonio’s hold negated a 12-yard gain and sabotaged another drive.
“I had probably three of the weirdest plays I’ve been involved in in like a five-play period for me,” he said. “So that was weird for me, but it just comes down to executing better.”
The freakish nature of the stretch is underscored by the fact Van Noy didn’t shoot at Bitonio’s legs the rest of the game.
“I had the play where my foot caused a fumble, I had the play where the guy I was blocking back on ended up picking the ball off and I had a hold,” he said. “And then if you look at the rest of the film, I would say the other 65 plays I played pretty dang good. But you see three plays and you’re like, man, those are game-changing plays.”
Even though Bitonio likes to talk and each word from Chubb is precious, they’re cut from the same cloth. Bitonio has often wondered how a player could be more motivated for a particular game when he always gives full effort.
He’ll test that theory Sunday.
“It’s one of those things where I don’t want to get too over-excited but I’m focused and I want to do everything I can to get a win for us,” Bitonio said. “We need to get that win, we need to get to three wins and that’s what the focus is.”
The Browns weren’t going to beat New England with Chubb and Bitonio the source of the heartbreak. They have a much better chance vs. Denver with the pair at peak performance.
The Browns can’t afford to leave the Mile High City with a loss to a first-time starting quarterback (Brandon Allen) and a 2-6 record. The rest of the reason would set up to be rockier than the mountains they just visited.
“It’s gut-check time a little bit, time to turn it around,” defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson said.