Patriots

The mother of re-invention: How Belichick, Patricia got creative with banged-up front

The mother of re-invention: How Belichick, Patricia got creative with banged-up front

FOXBORO -- Bill Belichick finished off his postgame press conference last weekend with a comment that seemed rooted in a couple of the football virtues he espouses most. It was both "next man up" and "the more you can do . . ." all wrapped into a quick two-minute response.

The question that prompted it was simple enough. Belichick was asked about the performance of his linebackers in Dont'a Hightower's absence.

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"We were a little light on the defensive line, three tackles and three ends," Belichick explained. "We had a little bit more depth at linebacker in this game -- five plus Brandon King -- so those guys helped to supplement the front with the depth that we were missing on the defensive line."

It made sense. Without Malcom Brown (ankle) and Hightower (torn pectoral), the Patriots front seven was down two of its key pieces. In order to try to fill in the gaps, more front-seven bodies were required. And with a surplus of linebackers, that's who the Patriots turned to. 

But it was the way in which those linebackers were used that harkened back to a creative approach that we've seen before from Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. It was an approach that could potentially become a staple for a team that we know is now a) without Hightower for the rest of the season and b) expected to have Shea McClellin back soon but still short on pass-rush help. 

Three years ago, the Patriots deployed their versatile ends and talented blitzing linebackers to confuse opposing offenses. Some of the game's smartest quarterbacks had trouble identifying rushers versus coverage players against the Patriots defense in 2014: Rob Ninkovich picked off Peyton Manning in a blowout win in November of that season when Ninkovich dropped from his spot at left end; Akeem Ayers intercepted Philip Rivers in December of that year with the same kind of deception. 

Those schemes haven't been put in a box and tucked away in Ernie Adams' storage closet since then. The Patriots have broken them out on occasion, particularly when they had both Hightower and Jamie Collins at their disposal. But when the Patriots took on Rivers and the Chargers again last Sunday, they seemed more committed to those ideas than they have been all season. 

In order to mix up their front-seven personnel and supplement a relatively thin front, they employed their linebackers aggressively. At times, they brought one linebacker to give the Patriots an added body in the middle of the line of scrimmage, allowing the backside end to stay at home. At other times, the Patriots brought a linebacker up the middle and dropped an end into coverage. Every so often they brought two linebackers and had both ends drop. 

The uncertainty it created for the Chargers offensive line paid dividends in the 21-13 victory for the Patriots. 

In all, we counted 19 plays -- more than one-third of last week's total for the Patriots defense -- during which it appeared as though it was part of the design for a linebacker (or two) to attack the line of scrimmage.  Here are three of those 19 that illustrate how the Patriots were able to help their front by getting aggressive with their 'backers . . . 

FIRST QUARTER, 10:26 REMAINING, 2ND AND 15

As you can see in the image above, before the ball is snapped, Patriots middle linebacker Elandon Roberts was already moving toward the Chargers offensive line. He's an instinctive player against the run, and perhaps he noticed a Chargers tell that allowed him to get a jump. But this was so early that it seemed to be part of the design. 

The Patriots were in a diamond front here, with five players at the line of scrimmage and Lawrence Guy on the nose. This should mean one-on-one matchups across the board in the trenches. But when the tight end motioned in as a fullback, the Chargers suddenly had a six-on-five advantage. 

Which five were the Chargers blocking, though?

The Chargers may have actually seen a six-on-four advantage here. They knew they didn't care about Trey Flowers on their right because the play was going to the left. If the fullback could kick out Kyle Van Noy on the left edge, the Chargers thought they could get double-teams on Deatrich Wise and Guy in order to open running lanes. 

That's where Roberts' (No. 52) aggressiveness helped the Patriots. This early in the game -- even though Roberts had already come up the field three times in eight plays -- the Chargers weren't expecting him. And suddenly it was six-on-five again.

Los Angeles center Spencer Pulley was busy paying attention to Guy and had no time to seal off Roberts after reacting late. The result was a tackle by Roberts and a two-yard Melvin Gordon loss. 

That brought up a third-and-17, which the Chargers could not convert, and their drive eventually ended in a missed field goal. 

SECOND QUARTER, 2:10 REMAINING, 3RD AND 2

Good communication from the Patriots front-seven here. Seconds before the above shot was taken, Roberts had running back Branden Oliver outside in man-to-man coverage. Once Oliver motioned into the backfield, the back became Flowers' man. That freed-up Roberts to get up the field yet again. 

In the image above, you can see another diamond front, and you can see that Roberts isn't exactly keeping his intentions secret. He's ready to attack. 

The Chargers line saw Roberts showing blitz. But what they didn't see was Roberts' communication to Flowers before the snap for Flowers to take the back in coverage. That meant right tackle Michael Schofield still believed his focus should be on Flowers, even though Flowers wasn't rushing. 

When the play began, Roberts was picked up easily by the center. Wise was doubled after Van Noy dropped. Alan Branch was manned up by guard Kenny Wiggins.

Schofield, however, was confused.

When the ball was snapped and Flowers dropped, Schofield was blocking air. That left Oliver (5-foot-8, 208 pounds) to take on Patriots undrafted rookie defensive lineman Adam Butler (6-foot-4, 300) one-on-one. It didn't go well for Oliver. 

The matchups created by the scheme may not have resulted in a sack, but they resulted in the Patriots hurrying Rivers despite being out-manned up front six-to-four. Rivers had to get rid of the football quickly, the pass was incomplete, and the Chargers were forced to punt.

THIRD QUARTER, 12:07 REMAINING, 2ND AND 11

This time the Patriots showed a four-man front, no nose tackle, but once again Roberts made it clear before the ball was snapped: He wanted the Chargers to know he was rushing.

After Rivers made a call to his line, he received the snap, and Roberts sprinted up the field. Both Patriots ends, however, dropped into coverage. That allowed both Patriots defensive tackles, Guy and Branch, to be doubled. 

What the Patriots did next evened the odds on the interior of the line. They brought David Harris up the field to loop in behind Roberts. With Gordon staying in to pass protect, and with Roberts driving into the center, the Patriots had a 2-on-2 situation with their two 'backers matched up on the Chargers center and back. 

The running back lost his matchup with Harris -- and quickly. Harris trampled Gordon on his way to Rivers, forcing Rivers from the pocket. Rivers eventually fumbled and lost 20 yards on the play to bring up a third-and-31 situation.  

The Patriots weren't perfect when they brought their off-the-ball linebackers up the field. In fact, they used their linebackers in that fashion on two of the first three Chargers plays of the game and allowed 22 yards. But they took their chances as the game wore on, understanding that deception might help them improve their odds in a banged-up front-seven.

"There are some scheme things, creating pressure on the offense, whether you're walking those guys up pre-snap or bringing them post-snap," defensive line coach Brendan Daly said last week. "No matter how you kick it, you're just trying to create some issues for the offense to deal with."

With Hightower out for the remainder of the season, Belichick and Patricia may feel like they can continue to keep offenses guessing by mixing and matching with their linebackers and defensive linemen in the second half of the season. It's worked before. 

Report: Patriots kicker Justin Rohrwasser removed controversial tattoo

Report: Patriots kicker Justin Rohrwasser removed controversial tattoo

"I knew I had to have it totally taken off of my body."

In April, that's what Patriots rookie kicker Justin Rohrwasser told WBZ's Steve Burton about a controversial Three Percenters tattoo on his left arm that gained instant notoriety after he was drafted by New England.

Well, it appears he has followed through on that promise.

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According to TMZ Sports, the 23-year-old has had the tattoo removed. The report states that Rohrwasser started the painful removal process right after the NFL Draft.

After the Patriots selected the Marshall kicker in the fifth round of the draft, there was a public outcry about the tattoo displaying the logo of the right-wing militia group, which has been described as racist and anti-government. Rohrwasser had said he got the tattoo when he was 18 as a way to support the military, but didn't realize its other use.

"It's shameful that I had it on there ignorantly," Rohrwasser told Burton. "I'm sorry for all my (friends) and family that have to defend me. Putting them in that compromising position is one of the biggest regrets I'll ever have. To them, I'm sorry. I'm going to learn from this. I'm going to take ownership of it. This is not who I am. No matter what, that's not who I am. Hopefully, you will all find that out."

Though he might still face questions about the tattoo when the Patriots open training camp later this month, removing the tattoo should keep the issue from being a huge distraction during his first NFL season.

How Cam Newton's 'up to' $7.5 million contract fits under Patriots salary cap

How Cam Newton's 'up to' $7.5 million contract fits under Patriots salary cap

How did the Patriots pull this off? How did a team that had no financial breathing room, no salary-cap space, go ahead and sign Cam Newton to a contract that's worth up to $7.5 million?

The key words there are "up to."

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Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio drew up a deal that would pay Newton the way other quarterback reclamation projects have been paid, if he performs. In the meantime, his salary-cap figure for 2020 comes in at just a smidgen higher than that of long-snapper Joe Cardona.

Let that sink in.

ALPHABET SOUP

Understanding how the Patriots were able to pull that off — pay Newton the going rate for a quarterback looking to revive his career, while simultaneously getting his salary on their books when they had next to no cap space — requires an understanding of the letters "NLTBE."

That acronym stands for "not likely to be earned," and it describes the majority of the incentives Newton received in his new deal with the Patriots. By NFL rule, NLTBE incentives do not count against the salary cap immediately. NLTBE incentive markers are markers that a player didn't achieve the season prior. If those markers are reached, then that incentive payment hits the following season's salary cap.

(As you might guess, LTBE incentive markers are markers a player did hit the season prior. LTBE incentives are counted against the cap upon the player's deal being signed.)

For example, if a player did not throw for 3,000 yards in 2019 but would be paid a $1 million bonus for reaching the 3,000-yard passing mark in 2020, that would be considered an incentive that is NLTBE. It would not count against the 2020 cap. If that 3,000-yard mark is reached in 2020, it would count toward the 2021 cap.

We can deduce then that the $5.75 million in available incentives included in Newton's deal did not count against the Patriots cap for 2020. They couldn't. The team didn't have enough cap space on hand to give him that kind of money in LTBE incentives. The Patriots had less than $1 million in space prior to agreeing to terms with Newton, per Patriots cap expert Miguel Benzan.

We don't yet know the specific markers Newton has to hit to earn his 2020 incentives, but because he played in only two games last season, the Patriots could have given him very reasonable numbers to reach and they still wouldn't count against the cap immediately because they'd be NLTBE. 

For instance, New England could've given Newton bonuses for playing in three games, passing for 600 yards and throwing one touchdown. Because he didn't hit any of those numbers in 2019 — he played in just two games and threw for 572 yards without any touchdowns — they'd all be considered NLTBE and not counted against the 2020 cap. In all likelihood, though, it's going to be a little more difficult than that for Newton to reach the incentives laid out for him.

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WARNING: MATH AHEAD

So if $5.75 million of Newton's "up to" $7.5 million contract with the Patriots won't count against the cap, what will?

Newton's veteran-minimum $1.05 million contract, for one, will count. That's the minimum under the new collective bargaining agreement for players with at least seven years of NFL service.

Additionally, two games of Newton's $700,000 in per-game roster bonuses will count against the cap. If he's provided $700,000 total in per-game roster bonuses, that means he'll be owed $43,750 for each of the 16 regular-season games he's on the Patriots roster. Two games of per-game roster bonus — $87,500 — counts against the 2020 cap because it's LTBE; he played in two games in 2019. The rest of those per-game roster bonuses are considered NLTBE but will count against the cap with each game he plays. So if he plays in all 16 games, by the end of the 2020 season, his cap number will be $1.75 million. Active roster bonuses are the only earned NLTBE incentives that hit a current year's cap, Benzan relayed. 

Therefore, Newton's cap number for New England in 2020 — his base salary plus two games of roster bonuses — comes to $1,137,500. That's slightly more than the $1.08 million cap number assigned to Cardona and the $1.05 million number assigned to fellow quarterback Brian Hoyer for this coming season. It's slightly less than fullback Dan Vitale's 2020 cap hit of $1,287,500. 

Now the question is, how did the Patriots fit Newton under their cap if they had less than $1 million in cap space left prior to landing him? His cap number is over $1 million, isn't it?

It is. But there's an accounting rule the NFL uses to include only the contracts of the players with the top-51 base salaries against a team's cap until active rosters are finalized.

Newton's cap number replaces what was the No. 51 salary on the 90-man roster prior to Newton's signing. According to Benzan, that No. 51 slot was assigned to outside linebacker Tashawn Bower. Because the difference in cap numbers between Newton and Bower is only a few hundred thousand dollars, the Patriots had enough space to add Newton once Bower fell below the No. 51 spot.

If the Patriots were snug up against the cap before, they're even more so now. By Benzan's estimates, they have $263,489 left in cap room. To handle regular in-season spending, they'll need to clear out more space eventually. Re-working Joe Thuney's contract to reduce his nearly $15 million cap hit, for instance, could free up some significant cap room quickly. 

MAXING OUT

If Newton makes the team, plays, and plays well, he may have a chance to reach the full $7.5 million value of the deal. But why $7.5 million? Why settle there?

Marcus Mariota is getting a $7.5 million base salary to be the No. 2 for the Raiders in 2020. Teddy Bridgewater made about that much in 2019 from the Saints. Both were passers in need of a fresh start. Both carried a certain level of uncertainty.

The same is true for Newton in New England, though his résumé is vastly more impressive than that of either of those other quarterbacks when they signed their contracts.

It's the definition of a low-risk, high-reward deal. It just required a little bit of creativity to get it in under the minimal amount of cap space the Patriots had available for 2020.