TAMPA, Fla. — Whether it was just caution because of the delayed start to training camp or not, New England coach Bill Belichick held out most of his starters in the Patriots’ preseason opener.
On Thursday night, he turned them loose for the first time and they showed him they might already be in midseason form.
Tom Brady, the reigning NFL MVP, tossed a pair of touchdowns and completed 11 of 19 passes in the Patriots’ 31-17 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Brady threw for 118 yards in one half of work, and connected on scoring strikes from 16 yards to Aaron Hernandez, and 8 yards out to Chad Ochocinco, who also both made their debuts.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis also got in on the act, rushing 11 times for 51 yards and two touchdowns.
“I thought we accomplished a few things,” Belichick said. “One thing we wanted to do was get off to a good start. We definitely didn’t do that last week, and I thought we had a little energy.”
Brady said his first outing was “fun.”
“After sitting last week, I think a lot of the guys were antsy to be out there,” he said. “I’m glad we put some points on the board, but obviously a lot of things we can do better, too.”
Belichick called this a big week for his team in regards to position battles and roster spots. It included three straight days of full-pad practices, creating what some players characterized as a regular-season atmosphere.
The pace seemed to be there as Brady and the rest of the first unit played all six offensive series of the first half, failing to score on only two. They scored on four of their first five drives.
Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris had a tough time finding any fault with his team’s effort in a 25-0 rout at Kansas City last week. But this week was more than a small reversal of fortune.
Third-year quarterback Josh Freeman, who was Brady-like against the Chiefs, misfired on his first three passes of the night to set a bad tone the Bucs never got over.
He was done after five series, connecting on 5 of 10 passes for just 33 yards. The Buccaneers had more than that in penalty yards in the first half. They were whistled 10 times for 85 yards, as New England built a 28-0 halftime lead.
“The Patriots came out and really dictated the game,” Freeman said. “It was frustrating because we had a good game plan. For the (No.) 1 offense it was penalties that set us back. Sacks and penalties are really drive killers.”
Freeman was also sacked twice by the Patriots, who held Tampa Bay to just 73 total yards and four first downs in the opening half. Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo got credit for both sacks, to go along with five tackles.
“It does feel good having those big workhorses in front of me,” Mayo said. “All those guys played well, and it just feels good to be able to run around a little bit.”
Morris said it was “disturbing” to see his offensive line get pushed around, but deferred to the game film before making final judgment, saying there was wholesale adjustments to be made.
“Obviously, we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Morris said. “Penalties versus a big-time team, you can’t have those. This is an accountable, young football team. We started flat, something that you’ve got to try and avoid. Kind of like a bad practice in the beginning.”
The Buccaneers didn’t get on the board until early in the third quarter when cornerback Elbert Mack intercepted Ryan Mallett’s pass and returned it 69 yards for the score.
Their lone offensive score came early in the third quarter when third-string running back Allen Bradford capped a 12-play, 84-yard drive with 2-yard touchdown run. The Bucs had only 64 yards rushing.
But, by then it seemed clear to the already thinning Raymond James Stadium crowd that it was not Tampa Bay’s night and that their team still has a lot of work to do before the regular season.
“If this would have happened in-season, it would have been a little rough,” Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. “But it is preseason. We needed a game like this.”
Notes: Patriots DB Bret Lockett was carted off in the second quarter (thigh bruise) and didn’t return. LB Dane Fletcher also didn’t return after injuring a thumb. … Tampa Bay WR Arrelious Benn, TE Luke Stocker, CBs Myron Lewis and Aquib Talib, DTs Roy Miller and Brian Price and S Ahmad Black were inactive.