Patriots are not up to par

Starters stopped by Buccaneers

Buccaneers 30
Patriots 28

TAMPA — To borrow a phrase from Hebrew, Friday night’s Patriots exhibition game against the Buccaneers, considered the dress rehearsal for the regular season, was nish keet.

In other words, not good.

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Tom Brady was battered, the offense was largely stagnant, and the defense, particularly early, was flat.

New England found itself down by double digits at halftime, and lost, 30-28.

But before the obituaries are written on this team, consider: Last year in the third exhibition game, the Patriots were handled, 34-10, by the Lions.

And the season ended with a Super Bowl appearance.

(The Patriots lost exhibition Game 3 in 2010 as well, by a point to the Rams, who had rookie Sam Bradford at quarterback.)

Time will only tell, of course, how this season will end.

Bill Belichick has said time and again that there is a lot of work to do for his team, and Friday night showed those are not just hollow words.

After the game, from Belichick and Brady at the podium to player after player in the locker room, that was the common refrain: The 2012 Patriots remain a work in progress.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do. We’ve got a long way to go,” Belichick said. “We really didn’t perform at the level we need to in any area. When you can’t score offensively, give up a lot of points on defense, nobody can make any plays in the kicking game, you don’t have a real good chance to win, and that’s pretty much what it was tonight.”

With Brady starting — he played through the third quarter — the Patriots had 118 first-half yards, with a little less than half of those (52) coming from running back Stevan Ridley.

Of their six first-half possessions, the Patriots went three-and-out three times, and saw one tipped pass in the first quarter land in the arms of Tampa Bay rookie safety Mark Barron, who took it back for a touchdown.

In what has been a consistent theme this preseason, the offensive line was not stellar.

On the play before the pick-six, Brady was strip-sacked by left end Michael Bennett, who blew past Marcus Cannon to get to the quarterback. In fairness to Cannon, Brady may have held the ball a touch too long.

On first down in the second quarter, Brady was sacked by middle linebacker Adam Hayward, putting New England in an 11-yard hole to start its drive. Ridley looked terrible on the play, as Hayward blew right by him on his way to Brady. He may have read safety blitz pre-snap, but he still got an earful from running backs coach Ivan Fears on the sideline.

Asked about Brady’s performance and if it was tough to watch him get hit frequently, Belichick said, “We didn’t do anything offensively except lose yards and turn the ball over. It was tough to watch anything offensively. There wasn’t anything. Throwing the ball, we can’t make any yards in the running game, third and long all day.”

It wasn’t all bad for Ridley and the Patriots, as they did put together a 12-play touchdown drive. The second-year back was taken down in the backfield on his first two carries of the possession, but then gained 11 yards on a first-down play, and 29 on second down to give the Patriots first and goal.

Two carries later, he was in the end zone.

“We have a lot to work on,” Ridley said. “We have to go right back to the drawing board tomorrow. Coach Bill said we have to go back to the drawing board and get the small things right.”

The first-team offense did score again in the third quarter, but it was against Tampa Bay’s second defense.

Perhaps it was a sign of just how frustrated the offense was that when Rob Gronkowski caught the 16-yard touchdown pass, he not only didn’t do his trademark spike, he never even cracked a smile as he walked toward the sideline.

On Thursday, linebacker Brandon Spikes said the Patriots’ defense had been “showing signs of being great,” but it didn’t look that way on the Buccaneers’ first possession.

Josh Freeman, in charge of a new offense, went 3 for 3 in leading his team to a TD.

All three of the passes, totaling 49 yards, went to prized acquisition Vincent Jackson.

Jackson had 10 receptions for 172 yards and two touchdowns for the Chargers against the Patriots last season, so the New England secondary was certainly familiar with him.

Rookie running back Doug Martin got the touchdown.

Freeman cooled off in the second quarter, though the Buccaneers’ kickers built the lead: Between Connor Barth and Kai Forbath, they hit three field goals of 50-plus yards.

After his team’s poor performance, Belichick would not rule out the prospect of the starters suiting up Wednesday for the preseason finale against the Giants.