Chemistry along an offensive line is crucial to success. That’s especially true for next-door neighbors like the left tackle and left guard.
The coronavirus pandemic has deprived seven-year veteran left guard Joel Bitonio and rookie left tackle Jedrick Wills from taking a single repetition together, or even sharing a meeting room. But Bitonio likes what he’s seen and heard through a computer and phone.
“Just from everything I have heard, he is just a hardworking guy that loves to play the game of football and he is going to try to do everything possible to put us in the best position to win,” Bitonio said Tuesday on a Zoom conference call with area media. “That is really all you can ask from a rookie. If he is going to come in, listen, be coachable and work hard, that is what you can ask from Day 1.
“We have had these Zoom conference calls with him, and so far, he has been in tune to those. You do not get as much interaction or on-field interaction as you would in a normal offseason, but from those, he has been dialed in. Everything I have done in texting him and talking to him, he seems like he is ready to work. That is really all you can ask in that. Once we get under the same roof and we can practice together, then we will learn a lot more, but right now, it has been a true positive.”
Wills, the No. 10 pick out of Alabama in April, was the second major offseason addition to the line. Free agent Jack Conklin signed a three-year, $42 million contract in March to play right tackle.
“He has been really good, just from watching him play and especially watching him this past year since they had Derrick Henry running behind him,” Bitonio said of the NFL’s leading rusher who passed Cleveland’s Nick Chubb in the final week. “He has been in a zone system before and he has been in a lot of that play-action system, which we are hoping to run this year. He is built for it.
“He is tough. He is strong. He can move well. All of those things have been good. I know he is excited to actually get to Cleveland and get to work, but I know he is putting in the work at home right now with his family.”
A FIT FOR BAKER
The play-action system Bitonio referenced is the wide zone run scheme being installed by coach Kevin Stefanski. The commitment to the run sets up the play-action pass and should make life easier on quarterback Baker Mayfield.
“He works in this offense great. He is going to be able to sell those runs and set up in the pocket,” Bitonio said. “It is not just drop-back passing 50 times a game, which is a benefit to the O-line, too. If you can sell the run and play-action, boot(leg) and run keepers off the run game, it is going to give Baker another second or two to have guys get open and run routes. You have seen that with the big shots that a team like the 49ers and a team like Minnesota took last year … all these guys running down the field open because (defenses) are so worried about stopping the run.
“If you look at the stats from the last couple of years, Baker has actually been a really good rollout quarterback and a quarterback that has been able to throw off of the run. This offense fits him really well. I am excited to get some reps and see him in it.”
Bitonio ran a similar system as a rookie in 2014 under coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who led the 49ers to the Super Bowl last year as head coach. The Browns started 7-4 before a five-game losing streak that included inserting quarterback Johnny Manziel into the lineup.
“There are a lot of similarities to that system,” Bitonio said of Stefanski’s scheme. “It is a marriage of the run and pass. We want to make the runs look just like the passes and the play-actions just like the runs. I am excited to get back in it.”
NOT READY YET
Bitonio is concerned about returning to team headquarters during the pandemic but said he’ll show up if the NFL and NFLPA agree to work conditions for a season.
“I think it will be a good set of rules and mandates, and we will see how it works,” he said. “You do not know where this is going to go in a month, in two months or in two weeks. We really do not know what is happening with it, but I think if the NFLPA agrees on it and the NFL agrees on it, then I will be there and I will be ready to work.”
Bitonio called the virus “a real threat” and is uncertain if the season will start on time in September.
“People are dying from that and people are getting sick, not usually in the demographic of football-aged players, but it is the spread,” he said. “You never want to see your grandparents, friends, older people or people with compromised immune systems getting this, so how are you going to be able to control the spread of it?
“My wife and I have discussed that there are risks going in and being around the guys, but I think they are working hard to try to limit those risks, limit our time in the building, limit our time around each other during meal time and all of those things of us gathering together as much as possible, and a lot of testing and stuff of that nature. Personally, you never want to be like, ‘Oh, I am going to take this risk to play,’ but we do take a risk playing football, as well. There is give and take on each topic, and it is something they are still working through.”
In a normal offseason, Bitonio would have been in Berea for almost two months, attending meetings, lifting weights and practicing. Instead, he’s learning from home and training on his own.
“It has been different, for sure,” he said. “I do think the Zoom meetings have been successful for us. We have the whole offense’s base installed at least, and there is an understanding of things.
“It is going to be interesting when we come together for training camp, if that is the next step, of how are we going to establish on the field. It might take a couple weeks to get up to speed in that sense, but if you get your six weeks of training camp, I think you are going to have plenty of time to get the plays in and an understanding of the offense. I know we have a good foundation set, and we still have a few more weeks of this offseason program to keep building on that.”
Bill Callahan has been a coach since 1980, been in the NFL since 1995 and been a head coach in college and the NFL. He’s the latest line coach for Bitonio after another staff change by the Browns.
“They loved him,” Bitonio said of the players he polled who’d been with Callahan. “All of the things I have heard is he is going to work with you and he is going to put you in the best position to be successful, and that is all you can ask. We are excited and ready to get to work with him.
“He truly understands how to play in the NFL and you look at his pedigree of guys that he has coached.”