'Ultimate competitor came out in him': Browns still have faith in Baker Mayfield, guard Joel Bitonio says

Browns offensive lineman Joel Bitonio (75) says the team has faith in quarterback Baker Mayfield (6). [Jeff Lange/Beacon Journal]
Browns offensive lineman Joel Bitonio (75) says the team has faith in quarterback Baker Mayfield (6). [Jeff Lange/Beacon Journal]

Joel Bitonio doesn't think quarterback Baker Mayfield’s confidence has been shaken after throwing a career-high four interceptions Saturday in Green Bay, with the left guard saying Tuesday that the Browns still have faith in Mayfield and coach Kevin Stefanski.

The Browns (7-8) have a shot at the AFC North title if they get the help they need. But Bitonio is focused on what is essentially a playoff game Monday night in Heinz Field against the Pittsburgh Steelers (7-7-1).

Bitonio lauded Mayfield for the difficult circumstances he went through leading up to the 24-22 loss to the Packers. Activated from the reserve/COVID-19 list on Friday, Mayfield cleared protocols after his 10-day quarantine and flew to Green Bay the morning of the game. Mayfield started despite not having practiced since Dec. 10.

“Baker was in one of the toughest situations to be in. He had COVID, he was on it for the full length of time, he didn’t get a chance to throw a ball and practice with the guys,” Bitonio said. “But the ultimate competitor came out in him and he said, ‘I’m going to get there. I’m going to play in this game.’

“As a teammate of his, you can’t ever question how tough he is or his want-to or his ability to play when maybe he shouldn’t be playing, injury-wise or other situations. It’s one of the things I respect about him. But his confidence this week, I don’t think has changed. I think they’re telling us there’s a chance to win this division, so we’re going to go out there and give it our best shot.”

Loss fuels questions on Mayfield's future: Baker Mayfield's Browns future marred by five fourth-quarter chances to win, five failures

Bitonio was not aware that free safety John Johnson III, out with a hamstring injury, tweeted “RUN THE DAMN BALL” during Saturday’s game.

“He’s watching the game. He’s kind of turned into a fan, he’s an emotional guy. I don’t think it matters,” Bitonio said. “That’s the great thing about social media, everybody has a voice, everybody has an opinion, anybody can say anything. He’s a teammate of ours and we respect him and he’s a leader for our defense.

“In the moment, he probably wanted us to run the ball, just like every fan does when you throw a pick. It’s part of it. But we have all the faith in Bake and coach Stefanski. There’s too many games that have been decided by one touchdown that we haven’t won. But we still have a chance at this thing and I still have all the faith in the world in our offense.”

Defensive leader sets the tone: Browns inspired by Myles Garrett pushing through injury: 'If Myles can do it, then we all can do it'

The Browns have lost a league-high six games by six points or less. That includes Saturday, and a 16-10 defeat at Baltimore on Nov. 28 when the defense intercepted Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson four times. Bitonio said he has not felt a rift between the Browns’ struggling offense and the defense that is carrying them.

“There’s no tension, that might be something in years past,” Bitonio said. “The guys are focused on winning and taking care of their business. Obviously, we want to capitalize when we get the ball and really try to play complementary football. But it’s not something that’s tearing our team down.

“Really, we haven’t even had a talk about it. Obviously, if you get four interceptions, you want to win the game and you obviously don’t want to turn the ball over on offense. But there’s no separating the locker room. I think guys are in a good headspace and we’re in a good position as a team.”

AFC North race a testament to division’s toughness, Cleveland Browns’ Joel Bitonio says

The Browns are last in the AFC North, trailing Cincinnati (9-6), Baltimore (8-7) and Pittsburgh (7-7-1). But the Browns call still claim the title if Kansas City defeats Cincinnati on Sunday, the Ravens lose one of their two remaining games and the Browns beat the Steelers and Bengals, the latter possibly a winner-take-all showdown in Cleveland on Jan. 9.

“It has been up and down,” Bitonio said of the race. “Early in the year, you saw Cincinnati get off to a good start, and then the Ravens really made a push midseason, but then COVID and injuries to really every team in the AFC North have been a detriment.

“It is always a tough division. It is always hard to win it. Looking at it now, it is going to come down to the wire again. We will probably have four teams right around .500 or a little bit better — no real bottom team and no team that is going to win 13 games this year. I do think it is a testament to the toughness of the division and how tough each game is when you play within the division.”

Browns rooting for Kansas City: Cleveland Browns still have shot at AFC North title, playoffs after receiving help Sunday

Bitonio said the other division foes have had missed opportunities like the close losses the Browns have suffered.

“We need some help, and that is unfortunate. You always want to control your own destiny. We definitely need some help,” he said.

“You are going to look back on the season, a team that does not make the playoffs, and say, ‘Man, we had two or three games that we really threw away.’ I think that just shows how important every game is in the NFL. Hey, once you get in the playoffs, they don’t care what your record is. Hopefully, we can start to handle our business this week and really go from there.”

Browns cornerback Denzel Ward said it means a lot to him to be selected to his second Pro Bowl. [Aaron Gash/Associated Press]
Browns cornerback Denzel Ward said it means a lot to him to be selected to his second Pro Bowl. [Aaron Gash/Associated Press]

Browns cornerback Denzel Ward says second Pro Bowl selection ‘meant a lot’

Browns cornerback Denzel Ward, the fourth overall pick in 2018 from Nordonia High School and Ohio State, learned on Dec. 20 he had been named to his second Pro Bowl. Ward’s first selection came during his rookie year.

“It meant a lot,” Ward said. “Much credit to my coaches, my teammates, my family, and everybody who played a big role in helping me get back to the Pro Bowl since my rookie year. I’m looking forward to representing Cleveland and participating in the games and everything that comes along with the Pro Bowl.”

Asked how he’s grown in his four seasons, Ward said, “I’m definitely a smarter player. I changed my body from my rookie season ‘til now, gained some weight, put on a lot of muscle, and just trying to find a way to come in and help my team get better. But I feel like I’ve definitely made some changes to improve myself for this season we just had.”

Ward has matched his career-high from his rookie season with three interceptions, including a 99-yard interception return for a touchdown at Cincinnati, a team-high 10 pass breakups and 40 tackles.

Browns’ Joel Bitonio says playing left tackle in Lambeau Field was a new wrinkle

Bitonio started the past two games at left tackle with Jedrick Wills Jr. on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Wills was activated Monday, and Bitonio is relieved he’s going back to his home at left guard.

“The first game, I really did not have a chance to think about it so I just kind of went out there and did my thing,” he said of the 16-14 home loss to the Las Vegas Raiders on Dec. 20. “There was kind of a new wrinkle this week. At guard, you go with the silent count, and you can see the ball so it is not that demanding, but then when you get into Lambeau Field on Christmas Day, you are like, ‘Oh man, I have to really pay attention to the silent count and get off on the ball.’ There were a few things where I was like, ‘Man, I wish I had practiced this a few more times.’

Praise from former assistant coach: Bob Wylie: Plan 'Z' Joel Bitonio did A-OK as Browns left tackle, should be viewed as Hall of Fame-caliber guard

“There are plays that get called in the game where it is like, ‘Alright, I have not really gotten a rep on this. What does a tackle do on this play?’ Those were the things that kind of reminded me of my rookie year when you are just like out there and just playing because you do not know the game as well at that position.”

Browns center JC Tretter (64) missed his first game since joining the Browns last week with COVID but is feeling better and hopes to be cleared to play against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday night. [Seth Wenig/Associated Press file]
Browns center JC Tretter (64) missed his first game since joining the Browns last week with COVID but is feeling better and hopes to be cleared to play against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday night. [Seth Wenig/Associated Press file]

Browns center JC Tretter has minor COVID-19 symptoms, Joel Bitonio says

Browns’ nine-year veteran center JC Tretter, president of the NFL Players Association, was placed on the COVID list on Thursday, but close friend Bitonio said Tretter is “doing fine physically” after having “some minor symptoms.” Tretter said on Twitter that he experienced mild cold-like symptoms and asked to be tested.

“The NFL is one of those tough-guy leagues where before COVID, unless you could not walk or could not do anything, you try and play in the game, and sickness, you try and play in the game,” Bitonio said. “I think JC was just reiterating it is your right to get tested if you feel it, and it is your right as a human being to not spread COVID throughout the locker room, as well.

“He has a family at home. He has a child who is not vaccinated yet because she is too young. He is trying to protect them, as well.”

Tretter had not missed a game since joining the Browns in 2017, and had his streak of 78 consecutive starts and 5,165 straight offensive snaps (100%) snapped.

“I know he was disappointed to miss the game,” Bitonio said. “I know he had a heck of a snap streak going, and the guy has played through a lot of injuries honestly worse than what he did with COVID. But we still do not know the lasting effects of COVID and things of that nature. Honestly, as a player and as NFLPA president, I have the utmost respect for him because he is worried about himself and his family but also the teams around the league and trying to get this season finished.”

Cleveland Browns Myles Garrett, Kareem Hunt, John Johnson III, Troy Hill miss practice

Defensive end Myles Garrett (groin), Johnson (hamstring), running back Kareem Hunt (ankle), cornerback Troy Hill (knee) and defensive tackle Malik Jackson (knee) sat out practice. Garrett, Johnson and Jackson were on the side during the portion of practice open to the media.

— Nate Ulrich

Cleveland Browns release ex-Akron Zips receiver JoJo Natson from practice squad

The Browns released former Akron Zips receiver/returner JoJo Natson from the practice squad, along with cornerback Bryan Mills. Signed to the practice squad were receiver Lawrence Cager and tight end Miller Forristall.

This season, Natson has returned five kickoffs for a 21.4-yard average and has three punt returns for 15 yards.

Marla Ridenour can be reached at mridenour@thebeaconjournal.com. Read more about the Browns at www.beaconjournal.com/browns. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Cleveland Browns still have faith in Baker Mayfield despite struggles