July 28, 2014

Cleveland Browns Film Room: A look at Joel Bitonio

Over the next couple weeks on WFNY, I will be breaking down the film on all seven draft picks of the Cleveland Browns. As fans, we often rely on mainstream draft analysts to give us certain traits and characteristics that we use to form our opinions. Rather than simply tell you positives and negatives, the goal of this series is to better inform you by showing evidence, in GIF form, of the skills each prospect possess and areas they each must improve upon.  Past film rooms: Justin Gilbert, Johnny Manziel

Joel Bitonio

Although Cleveland fans have been taught year after year to always anticipate the worst, no one ever sees the drop in the emotional roller coaster coming. Following the first day of the 2014 NFL Draft, fans and analysts alike gave the Browns an immense amount of credit in acquiring their top cornerback, top quarterback, and a future first round pick. Within 12 hours of selecting Johnny Manziel, 1,500 more season tickets sold. And then, out of nowhere, Outside The Lines killed the buzz. Josh Gordon: Suspended.

As information on the suspension was leaked (we somehow still do not have a ruling), Cleveland fans started panicking, questioning the front office, calling for Gordon’s release, but worst of all, coming to the realization that Greg Little topped the wide receiver depth chart!

“Should the Browns have selected Sammy Watkins at 4? Did Ray Farmer intend to select Mike Evans at 8, only to have the Buccaneers take him with the seventh pick? Marquise Lee is a lock in the second round, right? Santonio Holmes is a free agent… For the love of Joe Jurevicius, please draft someone who can catch the ball!”

Yet, despite the mounting pressure and unexpected suspension, Ray Farmer and Mike Pettine refused to budge, sticking to their pre-draft philosophies and selecting offensive lineman Joel Bitonio from the University of Nevada. Disregarding the fact that the Browns desperately needed a competent lineman to play at guard or hopefully, right tackle, this pick will be long-remembered as the pick they should have used on name-one-of-the-seven-second-round-receivers.

Ignoring the fact that without Bitonio, Browns fans may have been in for 16 more games of Jason Pinkston, this pick makes a lot of sense. New offense coordinator Kyle Shannahan has had a lot of success in his career running a zone blocking scheme that he brings to the Browns. Even after just a few plays, understanding why the Browns opted for Bitonio over highly regarded offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandijo and a myriad of receivers becomes easy to understand.

For offensive linemen to succeed in a zone blocking run game, they must be quick, smart, and explosive which are the three areas that Bitonio impresses me the most. These schemes lend themselves best to relatively smaller linemen than power running games which place a premium on size, strength, and brute force. The University of Nevada lineman, at 6-foot-4 302 pounds placed in the top five offensive linemen in every single workout at the 2014 NFL Combine other than the bench press, showcasing his speed and agility. Joel Bitonio’s combination of agility, explosiveness, and football acumen will greatly benefit him in his transition from college to the NFL.

Positives

Great Footwork:

As an offensive lineman, technique is often overlooked by the casual fan who only notices linemen when they pile-drive someone into the turf. However, having great footwork can make up for shortcomings in other areas. Although a 300+ pound lineman, Bitonio looks extremely quick and regimented on the field. As a left tackle in college, Bitonio took consistent, choppy kick-steps back, rarely ever being caught off balance. In the run game, he flourished, using his quick first step and continued driving of his legs once engaged in a block. And, Bitonio even used his footwork to pull and get to the linebackers extremely quickly. Keep an eye on big No. 70—it’s a thing of beauty.

48 fresno

Playing left tackle, Bitonio pulled all the way across the line and ended up destroying Fresno State’s middle linebacker. This play works well because Bitonio gets down the line and is able to turn upfield and locate the linebacker he needs to block quickly. Then, he broke down just enough to keep the ‘backer in front of him and get his hands on him. The beauty of this play is how Nevada is able to use their left tackle as the sole pulling lineman, allowing the entire front side of the offensive line to block the defensive line and back side linebacker. The ability to reach the second level of the defense quickly will be a skill that translates to the NFL well for Bitonio.

But what about when he’s engaged?

Fresno 7 07

Bitonio’s footwork on this play is exactly what NFL offensive line coaches teach. He uses a quick first step, gets low and delivers a hit, and continues to drive his feet. Since the lineman was already pinching inside, Bitonio’s job was made easier, but this shows a great view of the consistent, choppy steps that he uses to move defenders out of running lanes.

High Football IQ:

As a former high school offensive lineman who was undersized by thirty to ninety pounds by my fellow linemen, nothing gives me more irrational excitement than a blitz pickup or a heady play by and offensive lineman. Linemen who can pick up all blitzes thrown their way and do not screw up assignments are a coach’s best friend, and Bitonio certainly fits into this category. As a former Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year, 38-game starter, and team captain, Bitonio has proven to be a student of the game and a leader by example. On the field, he picked up nearly every blitz or stunt thrown at him by the defense. Nothing will get a player on the field quicker than a solid understanding of the playbook.

13 10 UCLA

Watching Bitonio seamlessly pick up this twist by the linebacker and defensive lineman was absolutely glorious. Rather than try to lock up on the rush linebacker and ride him inside, he does his job (a common theme with Bitonio) and smothers the defensive lineman. This block is a prime example of how to negate the effectiveness of a stunt and should he learn the playbook quickly, I expect this to continue to occur.

1 36 Fresno

Although somewhat difficult to see, due to the moving camera, Bitonio picked up a late blitzing linebacker with ease, throwing him to the ground. Once again, Bitonio does his job, rather than per-determining what his job will be.

Explodes off the Ball:

Joel Bitonio excels at getting off the ball quickly and delivering a strong hit to defensive linemen. Although he is often relatively smaller than interior defenders, he uses his quick first step, a low pad level, and constant driving of his feet to move defenders. Playing at left tackle at the University of Nevada, Bitonio largely used this skill to down block defensive tackles or block out on defensive ends or linebackers. In the NFL, this will be especially important if he ends up playing at guard, thus needing the extra initial push to move larger defenders.

6 10 fsu

On this quick-hitting inside run, Bitonio blocks the defensive end over him, getting lower than his counterpart and driving. He is able to gain leverage early in the block, allowing him to have total control once the Florida State defender tries to re-gain balance. Bitonio’s low fire-out of his stance allowed him to pancake the lineman and open a much-needed hole for Nevada. Watching this, you must be impressed by how he can gain leverage over the defensive lineman, which he does consistently, game in and game out.

7 59 ucla

On a first-and-ten against UCLA, Bitonio’s job is to help the guard double team the defensive tackle and then move on to the middle linebacker. However, Bitonio expedites his assignment, as he fires out of his stance and drills the defensive lineman, allowing him to immediately move on to the linebacker. Unfortanutely, due to the center completely whiffing on a cut block, this promising play died before it could even begin. But, we saw enough to understand the power the Bitonio can hit with.

Good Turning his Defender:

Although Bitonio does not have elite size or strength, he is very good at keeping defenders away from the ball on both runs and passes. On runs, he is able to turn his butt to where the ball is headed and keep the defender away. This is key since he sometimes gets locked up on linemen and cannot easily move them. On passes, he does a great job of stonewalling pass rushers who try to use a speed rush or bull rush. He always keeps the defender away from the ball, keeping himself in between the two.

2 27 ucla

On this play, against UCLA, Bitonio’s duty is to block outside linebacker and first-round pick Anthony Barr out. He must keep him out outside and create a hole in the B gap (between the guard and center). Bitonio is able to turn him completely outside and give the running back the desired lane. At the end of the play, he has no problem throwing Barr on top of the pile of bodies while playing to the whistle. This type of blocking will help Bitonio at the next level when the speed, size, and strength of defenders increases.

Nasty, Willing to Put Defenders in the Dirt

Although Bitonio is smaller than other linemen, he plays with a motor and nastiness that is necessary at the NFL level. He often tries to pancake defenders and bury them into the ground. Bitonio also loves to block until the whistle, even though he is sometimes on the opposite side of the field as the ball.

Check this one out:

4 40 fresno

This play is very self-explanatory, as Bitonio grabs hold of the defender and takes him for a ride until puts him in the ground. Bitonio has the block won within the first couple steps, as the defender was doing a stunt inside, but that is not enough for the University of Nevada tackle. He pummels Fresno State University’s defensive lineman and never lets up.

 Negatives

Overextends, Whiffing on Blocks:

One area that Bitonio needs to improve on is his tendency to drop his head and completely whiff or slide off blocks. Unfortunately, this comes with the territory of a player who is so quick and powerful off the line of scrimmage. He needs this initial contact to knock linemen off balance and to gain leverage. However, Bitonio most often misses on blocks against linebackers at the second level of the defense. He is very mobile for a lineman and reaches linebackers quickly, but he has issues keeping them in front of him and getting a solid, clean block.

2 35 ucla

This play shows Bitonio completely missing the defensive lineman right in front of him, who disrupts the play in the backfield. The defender gives Bitonio a quick swim move and completely avoids any hands placed on him to grab or stop him at all. Bitonio must avoid leaning forwards too much and falling since he gains a lot of his power from the initial hit.

11 25 fsu

On this first down run, Bitonio’s assignment is to bypass all the linemen and demolish an unsuspecting linebacker. However, Bitonio overruns the block, does not use his hands to push or grab the defender, and allows the linebacker to slide around him. When blocking linebackers, Bitonio does a great job getting to the second level, but as seen here, he has to break down and use his large frame to stay in front and grab the linebacker.

Needs to Improve Hands:

Joel Bitonio has great feet, a great football mind, but has no idea what to do with his hands. When blocking, he does not consistently attempt to hit the defensive player in the chest plate, grab on, and take him for a ride. Instead, he hits him wherever his hands land and tries to push, often lacking sufficient leverage. At the NFL Combine, his arms measured at nearly 34 inches, a great weapon for linemen in keeping defenders off their bodies. However, Bitonio does not use his length to his advantage whatsoever. Instead, he lets the defender get into him and is forced to give up leverage, making it harder to move the opposition. Of course, I think this can be improved upon, given the correct coaching, especially since he has such great physical tool to make it work.

11 15 fresno

On this play, Bitonio is in pass protection, takes a shot to the face, but doesn’t take full advantag of his arm length advantage. Rather than try and punch the pass rusher away, Bitonio tries to keep his arms locked out as the rusher eventually gets around due to speed. By this point, the quarterback had thrown the ball, but with someone like Johnny Manziel, this could mean a hit from the blind side. Of course, this type of play happens less often if Bitonio plays guard, since he has less space to work with. However, his weird hand placement is a concern no matter where he plays.

8 30 fsu

This play against Florida State shows a good view of the bad hand placement on the run block. Rather than even try to fight for inside hand position, Bitonio grabs the defensive end’s shoulders and tries to push. By the end of the play, Bitonio is nearly hugging the defender as he tries to push him, but given the lack of good hand placement, the effort is to no avail. This is an area that will be imperative to fix, given the increased pass-rushing hand skills of NFL linemen.

Average Driving Power in Legs:

One area in which I see mixed results is Bitonio’s ability to drive defenders off the ball with leg power. When he is able to get a solid explosion off the ball, I see much more success than when he is not able to get the defender immediately off-balance. However, since he delivers explosive first hits so often, he negates much of this concern. Still, play like the following do not give me great confidence in his current strength.

1 50 ucla

This play is fascinating to me because Bitonio fires out of his stance and into the defensive tackle as well as he possibly can and follows this up with quick, choppy steps. Nonetheless, the defender stands his ground well and Bitonio is unable to move him at all after the initial collision. Sometimes, he will stand up too high or, as I pointed out above, fail to place his hands inside the chest plate of the opponent he is blocking. On this play, he just does not seem to have the power to move the defensive lineman. I would be much more worried about this if the Browns were planning to play a power run game. However, from what I have watch, Bitonio’s average leg power will suffice in the zone running scheme.

Other Notes

Good at Down-Blocking:

I have covered nearly everything I planned, but I cannot finish without acknowledging Bitonio’s best block. He is fantastic at the “down” block on defensive tackles. He absolutely pummels them and with his superior first hit power, he is able to knock them out of the ball carrier’s way with ease. I do not think any explanation is needed for this play. Hopefully he will be able to bring some of this toughness to the Cleveland Browns in 2014.

8 39 fresno

Overview

After watching Joel Bitonio play, I understand why the Browns stuck with their original plan before the Josh Gordon suspension and selected the offensive lineman from the University of Nevada. I believe that Ray Farmer realized that Bitonio was the perfect fit for the new zone blocking offense, and in this case, I agree.

Unfortunately, Bitonio, for no fault of his own, will have to play as if he is a combination of Joe Thomas and Larry Allen for Browns fans to give him the credit he would deserve if he succeeds, but the Browns wide receivers, as a whole, fail.

On film, the initial explosiveness combined with the footwork and heady play gives me reason to believe Bitonio will be here a long time. In the beginning, I think he should start off at guard, rather than right tackle. His agility and explosiveness will be best utilized on the inside as he learns to adjust to the professional game.

Film via Draft Breakdown

  • brownsfan

    I think you’re overstating fan’s negative reaction to picking Bitonio. If Greg Little was still the only receiver on the team besides Gordon, you’d be right but most people I know are fairly positive about the possibilities of our receiving corps after all the changes since the draft. And everyone I know is glad we got a good young guard. I think its actually turned into a pick most Browns fans are quite happy about.

  • mgbode

    I was a huge Bitonio fan before the draft and am extremely happy that I get to cheer him on wearing the Orange hats for us. I fully expect him to man an OG spot for the Browns for the next 10+ years.

  • Colin Hass-Hill

    I agree that fans were probably more positive on the Bitonio pick than I give credit. However, I think that had a lot to do with the opinions similar to “the Browns had to know something about the Gordon suspension the public doesn’t” or “this draft is incredibly deep at receiver”. As the draft finished Day 2 and then 3, I think the angst increased. At the time the draft ended, we were looking at Greg Little, Travis Benjamin, Andrew Hawkins, and Nate Burleson, all of whom had been either recently injured or named Greg Little. Maybe I overstated the concern about Bitonio, but I think that the concern about WRs existed and still exists, albeit to a lesser extent, due to the large amount of question marks each possess.

  • http://www.waitingfornextyear.com/ Scott @ WFNY

    I think the issue came in the fact that the draft was just hours after the Gordon news, so those who were upset were being emotional and reactive. I received a few texts like this only for several people to hit me up with an “after further review” type thought.

  • https://twitter.com/jimkanicki jimkanicki

    >>>I was a huge Bitonio fan before the draft>>>
    understatement.

  • bupalos

    Such a great write-up, thank you! I do wish there was something other than gifs that could be embedded here because it’s 290,000% easier to see what’s going on when you can pause and frame-by-frame it.

    I am stoked about Bitonio, not only does he look like pretty much like a guarantee, the fit between system and player is harmonious and gives me more confidence in the coherence of the regime. Bitonio is a late 3rd round pick in SF, but I feel like mid 1 wouldn’t be too early for us. I think in an actuarial accounting, he’s every bit as valuable as Manziel.

  • maxfnmloans

    all credit to you sir, it was your recommendation that got me on the Bitonio bandwagon.

  • mgbode

    I think proper credit goes to Mike Bitonio for raising him:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=udqmBecGPaU