Patriots

Patriots defense steals spotlight, and Aaron Rodgers' thunder, in win over Packers

Patriots defense steals spotlight, and Aaron Rodgers' thunder, in win over Packers

FOXBORO – For weeks it's loomed on the Patriots schedule with a "Wait ‘till your father gets home . . . " air of foreboding.

The Packers on Sunday night. Aaron Rodgers. If Patrick Mahomes can put up 40, if Mitch Trubisky can put up 31, what kind of horror will visit the Patriots when A-Rod saunters onto the turf at Gillette Stadium and commences wrist-flicking his on-the-move darts?

No horror at all, as it turned out.

For weeks, defensive players have insisted their side of the ball wasn't broken, just in need of some repairs. A turn of the wrench here, a little caulk applied there. Better communication in the secondary, more discipline in the pass rush, making the plays that were there to be made . . . it would all work out fine.

And it did.

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The Patriots held Green Bay to a season-low point total in a 31-17 win (the Pack also lost to Washington by the same score in Week 3). They played their most complete game of the season on defense, weathering the Rodgers' storm and coming up with a huge turnover on the first play of the fourth quarter to snuff out a would-be go-ahead drive by the Packers.

After Green Bay scored on their first drive of the second half to tie the game at 17, the defense rose up to force two punts, the aforementioned fumble and a turnover on downs on the Packers final four possessions to send Green Bay home 3-4-1.

"We played together," said linebacker Kyle Van Noy. "We've seen this in the making. We've been a couple plays off here and there. In the past, it was a couple of turnovers here and there and off that it would be penalties in the red zone to extend and then they score. We know we're so close but we still have a lot of work to do but we're excited because we see the making of something special."

The Patriots defense understood the runup to this game was all about two all-time great quarterbacks squaring  off, but just prior to the game, Devin McCourty gathered the secondary around him and sent a message.

"Dev said, ‘This game is about more than just the quarterbacks,' " said Jason McCourty. "For us as defensive backs, it was big for us to step up and say, ‘This is all about Brady-Rodgers. We need to do something to make it so it's not about that.' For us as a defense, we're trying to get better trying to get the ball back to our offense."

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Rodgers victimized Jason McCourty on his longest throw of the night, a 51-yard completion to Marquez Valdes-Scantling on a third-and-6 early in the second half. Four plays later, Rodgers hit Jimmy Graham for a touchdown from 15 yards out.

"It was third-and-6, I just didn't want to be too deep and give up the first down," said McCourty. "I just needed to do a better job pre-snap of recognizing (Rodgers) bringing guys in (to help with protection). Everyone was back in the formation and we weren't going to be able to force him to get the ball out as quick as I thought. It's one of those plays where you think, ‘Damn, if I can get that one back I would have bailed out of there a little bit sooner.' But you line up and you try to get ‘em off the field and that's one of those things you realize as you get older in this league, ‘I better bounce back because he's gonna come back to me.' "

Rodgers did go back at McCourty

After the Patriots' had a 13-play drive go belly-up on the Packers 1, McCourty sniffed out a second-down screen to Randall Cobb for no gain at the Green Bay 4.

"Just man-to-man on that and once I saw (Cobb) go back, I knew," said McCourty. "I think it was the Redskins game he did the same thing and (Rodgers) just got it out there in man-to-man and gave his receiver a chance to get loose. Just recognizing and getting up there and being in balance and slow him down and make the tackle (made that play work).

Rodgers tried to go back to Cobb with a downfield throw on third down, again with McCourty in coverage. There was jostling but McCourty eventually walled Cobb off and the pass fell incomplete.

"I got my head around so I felt good about it," said McCourty. "When he turned his head, I got my head around. When the refs look at it, if the offensive guy is pushing and the defensive guy is pushing, they usually will let it go if you're looking back for the ball."

After that sequence, the Packers melted down a bit. They ran into punter Ryan Allen on a fourth-and-21 punt, extending a Patriots drive. Then, after forcing a punt and getting two brilliant hookups from Rodgers to Valdes-Scantling, Lawrence Guy forced a fumble on running back Aaron Jones that Patrick Chung recovered.

The Patriots cashed in that turnover with a touchdown thanks to a double-pass to James White that went for 37.

After forcing another punt with a third-down sack of Rodgers authored by Adrian Clayborn and Trey Flowers, Brady hit Josh Gordon for 55 to set up another score.

With the Patriots offense operating without Rob Gronkowski and a wide receiver – Cordarelle Patterson – as their pseudo-bellcow, the New England defense needed to pull its weight in ways it hadn't in previous weeks.

It did.  

"The defense played spectacular, and 17 points against that offense is great," said Brady. "You know, that's a tough offense to defend. I mean, he could fit the ball into a lot of tight spots. They got off the field on third down, they were great rushing – I mean, it just looked like they had to work for every yard, and I know when they're working for every yard, it's a good night for our defense. So, it was a great team win."

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The respect Bill Belichick has for Rodgers was apparent in the postgame. There was no "we have to play it better, we have to coach it better, not good enough" lamenting.

His applied his stamp of approval happily despite some of the plays Rodgers made

"I thought we did a good job of rushing him. He's just so hard to get," said Belichick. "He has such presence in the pocket. We pressured him. I thought he had to make some throws with kind of the line closing in on him and wasn't able to really get to make the kind of throw that I think maybe he wanted to make.

"But God, he's a hard guy to get," Belichick said again. "You look at the pictures (on the sidelines)  – everybody's where they're supposed to be. We feel like we had a good rush plan against him and he escaped a couple of times and extended plays and then got out and threw the touchdown there on a scramble. It looked like we had him on that. It looked like we had him on a lot of plays, to be honest with you. He's just so good. Then, of course, the accuracy throwing the ball in addition to him getting out and getting away from the rush. I thought our guys did as good a job as they could do. Really, he's just tough. He's just tough to get."

The last-second Sunday Night Football win over Kansas City may have been more exciting for the country to watch than this one.

But this SNF win got much better reviews in Foxboro.

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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.