FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The play is barely over when Tom Brady hurries to the line for the next one. The defense scrambles to get in position.
Hardly a fleet runner, he’s one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks at setting a fast tempo.
Shaun Ellis, now with the Patriots, often had to play catchup to Brady as a defensive end during 11 years with the New York Jets.
“As a defensive player, you’ve got to be in that pressure mode all the time,” Ellis said Wednesday. “You don’t want to be the one just caught either offside or out of position when they snap the ball.”
Tampa Bay Buccaneers defenders were hustling to their spots, sometimes arriving late, last Thursday night when Brady led New England to four touchdowns on its first five series in a 31-14 exhibition win.
“A lot of times, we’d get the (play) call but we couldn’t get lined up. They were moving the ball so fast,” Tampa Bay defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said after the game. “I was like, ‘Dang! Um, Mr. Brady, can we line up?’ He didn’t care. He was like, ‘You’re not going to line up.’ When we turned around one time I checked back around and my hand was going to the grass and they were like , ‘Hut!’ And I said, ‘Noooooooooooo!”’
Sometimes Brady rushes his teammates to the line of scrimmage after a play. Other times he calls them into a huddle.
The uncertainty can be baffling even to veterans like Ellis.
“He definitely keeps the defense on their heels,” he said. “Sometimes you find yourself listening to him when he’s at the line (and) he’s going through his checks. You try to figure out what he’s saying.”
Did Ellis ever succeed at that?
“No,” he said with a laugh. “Once you think you have it figured out, then he comes with something else.”
Entering his 12th season under coach Bill Belichick, Brady is an expert in the offensive system. So is wide receiver Wes Welker, who is going into his fifth year with the Patriots.
Tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez excelled and learned as rookies last season. Wide receiver Deion Branch, a Patriot from 2002-05, rejoined Brady in a trade from Seattle after five regular-season games last year.
That experience should make the up-tempo style even smoother.
“It’s hard when you have bad tempo,” Brady said, “when you have a slow rhythm to your offense and then guys are walking back to the huddle and walking to the line and then what happens is it’s a bad play. … When we get a good play going, I really like for us to put the pressure on the defense rather than give them time to catch their breath.”
Controlling the tempo can keep opponents from getting substitutes into the game. And the sooner Brady gets to the line of scrimmage, the more time he has to analyze the defense and decide what play to run.
That approach isn’t likely to change in Saturday night’s exhibition game at the Detroit Lions.
“With Detroit this week, maybe there’s a look that has given us trouble in the past or that they used that could put some stress on the offense,” director of player personnel Nick Caserio said. “So, we try to go at a fast pace.”
Belichick demands it.
“There’s a lot of stress and a lot of pressure that Bill puts on the players, both offense and defense, to play at a quick tempo,” Caserio said, “to play fast because it forces you to think fast and that’s what’s going to happen when you get on the field on Sunday (during the regular season). So you try, as best as you can, to simulate that in practice.”
Peyton Manning and Drew Brees also excel at creating a fast tempo, according to Ellis.
Brady expects Manning, who hasn’t missed a game as a pro, to play in the regular-season opener despite indications he may not be sufficiently recovered from offseason neck surgery.
“He’ll be playing,” Brady said. “Are you kidding me? He’ll be playing. I know Peyton. He’s as tough a competitor as there is, so it will hard to keep him out.”
Brady should get some playing time on Saturday after sitting out the first game and the second half of the second. Many starters play little or not at all in the fourth and final preseason game.
The Patriots have outscored opponents 78-26 in their first two games. For Brady, doing the right thing on each play is more important — and a better indication of the team’s prospects — than scoring a lot.
“Detroit was 4-0 a few preseasons ago and ended up being 0-16,” he said. “I just read the Colts lost like eight straight preseason games and … they’re a pretty good regular-season, postseason team.
“More of it, is just there’s individual preparation that’s taking place.”
Brady knows he needs to do better in the two-minute drill. Against the Buccaneers, he took the ball at the Patriots’ 3-yard line with 2:03 left in the first half. But they had to punt from their 25 after he threw two straight incompletions.
Still, he enjoys the two-minute offense because it forces him to play at high speed.
“It’s a mandatory fast tempo at that point,” Brady said. “You’re rushing to the line of scrimmage, you can see the coverage, ball’s snapped, you make a throw and you’re onto the next play and I think if you do that well it can be really a great strength for a team.”