TAMPA — For two days this week, the Bucs stretched the chains and sought a measurement of themselves during joint practices against the Patriots.
Playing in refreshingly mild weather, coach Greg Schiano finally had some harsh questions answered Friday night against one of the NFL's elite teams.
Can Josh Freeman find receiver Vincent Jackson without a GPS?
The Bucs' new quarterback-receiver combo connected on the first three passing attempts for 49 yards on the first series, which was capped by a 1-yard touchdown run by rookie Doug Martin.
Could the defense apply pressure to three-time Super Bowl-winning, supermodel-marrying quarterback Tom Brady?
Tampa Bay's defense sacked Brady twice and banged him around enough to allow the Patriots to cross midfield only once until late in the third quarter.
How will rookie Mark Barron pair with 37-year-old Ronde Barber at safety? Barber tipped a pass intended for tight end Rob Gronkowski that was intercepted by Barron and returned 22 yards for a touchdown in a 30-28 victory before 47,440 at Raymond James Stadium.
"I don't know if it helped us practicing with these guys, seeing how they prepare themselves," Barber said, "but they're the AFC champions."
"It's a good measure for where we're going to be. This was going to be the game everybody played. They were playing their starters in the third. We were going to do the same. We'll build on it. It's definitely encouraging."
The game came with a steep cost.
Starting guard Davin Joseph suffered a significant right knee injury late in the second quarter and is feared lost for the season.
"My guy had an inside move. I took him down to the ground," starting left tackle Donald Penn said. "And he fell right into Davin's leg."
Credit the Bucs defense, which gave up a franchise-worst 494 points last season, for stepping up against Brady and Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
Brady played into the third quarter and fired a 16-yard touchdown to Gronkowski. He finished 13-of-20 for 127 yards, a touchdown and an interception and was sacked by end Michael Bennett and linebacker Adam Hayward.
"We are a different team," Hayward said. "We're under the Schiano era. Things are a lot different. We're flying around, swarming and finishing. That's going to be the big difference in how we play. There's a lot more blitzing, more pressure on the quarterback and making him get rid of the ball quicker."
Belichick brought the Patriots to Tampa for joint workouts Wednesday and Thursday. It's uncertain which team performed better during the closed workouts. But the Bucs dominated the game, leading 23-7 and 30-14.
"I don't want to say dominant performance this early in the season, but it definitely felt like we were way more comfortable in this defense," said Barber, who moved from cornerback.
"But above all, we were playing as fast as anybody."
The Bucs took the opening kickoff and drove 68 yards in eight plays. Freeman went 3-of-3 for 49 yards, all to Jackson, the free agent who had caught only one ball in the preseason prior to Friday. Freeman went 10-of-19 for 102 yards and led the Bucs to 16 points. Backup Dan Orlovsky threw an 8-yard touchdown to Sammie Stroughter.
The Bucs also had a good night on special teams. Connor Barth made a 56-yard field goal and backup Kai Forbath field goals of 55 and 51 yards.
The Bucs also might have settled their battle at tailback. Rookie Doug Martin started and responded with 13 carries for 53 yards and a touchdown. He also caught three passes for 12 yards.
His competition, LeGarrette Blount, ran seven times for 22 yards.
"It was good to go out there and complete some passes to those guys," Freeman said. "I know on the first drive, Vincent was a huge part of it. (Tight end Dallas Clark) had a nice catch. You get two new guys … that talented, you want to get as many reps as you can with them."