FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was just breaking the huddle for the start of a live two-minute drill against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers outside Gillette Stadium on Tuesday when the Guns N’ Roses hit “Welcome to the Jungle” came crashing through the public address system so loud you could hear it all the way back to Boston Common.
As if stopping Brady’s laser-like passes in the mostly controlled quiet that permeated the first of two Patriots-Bucs joint workouts hadn’t already proved difficult enough, the Bucs defensive backs also had this extra assault on their senses to deal with.
And Bucs coach Greg Schiano couldn’t have been happier.
With the Bucs pass rushers on orders to avoid even touching, much less hitting, Brady, Tampa Bay’s linebackers and defensive backs were subjected to easily their most challenging test of the preseason, which is precisely why Schiano agreed to practice with New England in the first place.
“This was right up our alley,” Schiano said. “Everybody got challenged today.”
No one seemingly more than rookie cornerback Johnthan Banks.
Whether by design or the result of opportunities that unfolded in front of him, Brady repeatedly targeted the receiver Banks was covering.
In at least one instance, Brady targeted the zone Banks was covering, beating him with a throw to five-year veteran slot receiver Danny Amendola, who came off the line and slid under Banks’ coverage for an 8-yard reception.
“It was different,” Banks said. “You can have those guys covered and he still gets the ball in there. But it was a good experience to get out there and get some work against a different quarterback like that. It was fun.”
It was fun at the end.
After Brady engineered several scoring drives in what was easily the longest live-action period the Bucs have had this preseason, Banks snuffed out the final drive with one of the more impressive plays of the day. Matched up in single coverage, Banks stuck with rookie Kenbrell Thompkins on a crossing route in the back of the end zone and timed a dive perfectly to break up Brady’s pass and force a field goal try.
“Yeah, they caught some balls on me early on, but that happens in football,” Banks said. “You have days like that, but I thought we finished good and now we just have to keep getting better.”
That’s the idea, of course. With league rules now limiting the number of workouts teams can have in training camp, joint practices such as these might soon prove the best way for teams to better themselves during the preseason. Certainly, Patriots coach Bill Belichick is thinking along those lines.
After working for two days against the Eagles in Philadelphia last week, these joint workouts with the Bucs are the second such practices for his team in two weeks.
“We’re just trying to improve our team,” Belichick said prior to Tuesday’s workout. “We have a lot of work to do here and I think we can get better this week working against the Bucs. That’s what we’re about.”
Like Brady, Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman had little trouble moving the offense downfield and into scoring position. Freeman’s connection with receiver Vincent Jackson was especially sharp, the two combining for several receptions and one touchdown in which Freeman threaded the needle between two defenders along the back line of the end zone.
The Bucs also moved the ball well on the ground, with running back Doug Martin getting several touches and gaining big yardage on a variety of plays.
“It’s a good opportunity to try your system out against another team,” Martin said. “For me, going one-on-one with the linebackers, I can try out the moves that the coaches teach me, so it was a good opportunity that way.”
It was an opportunity for players further down the depth chart to shine, as well.
With the Bucs using an array of defensive fronts against Brady, defensive lineman Lazarius Levingston worked inside at tackle on several downs. Despite facing a double team, he got a hand up to bat down a Brady pass during a two-minute drill.
“It’s still just practice, so it doesn’t really matter until the season starts,” Levingston said. “You do want to make plays here and there, but doing it in the regular season is all that really matters.”
Not to Schiano.
He still has plenty of evaluation to do before setting the team’s 52-man roster. He also thinks the Bucs have much work to do before opening the season Sept. 8 at the New York Jets.
That’s why he believes the practices Tuesday and today against the Patriots are so important.
“We got in a lot of good work today,” he said. “Just to be able to go against a different team was very beneficial to us, so very little of this was not beneficial from our standpoint. It was real valuable.”