If we learned nothing else about Christian Ponder on Sunday against the Packers, at least we found out the kid is tough. In the face of relentless pressure and without his top receiver Percy Harvin on the field, Ponder led the Vikings on a pair of fourth quarter scoring drives – with a lot of help from Adrian Peterson – to at least give his team a chance at a stunning upset. The Vikings fell short in the end, but it wasn’t Ponder’s fault. After Leslie Frazier’s controversial decision to punt rather than gamble on a fourth down play, the defense had a chance to shut down the Packers and give Ponder one last crack at it. Instead of standing tall like Ponder, the defense wilted, allowing James Starks to run for three critical game-icing first downs.
A quick glance at the statline doesn’t really tell the story of Ponder’s day. He finished only 13-of-32 for 219 yards with 2 touchdowns and 2 (very critical) picks, but over-and-over he converted key third down situations, and in crunch time he showed the kind of playmaking ability the Vikings thought they would get from Donovan McNabb. Though Ponder did make glaring mistakes, he also made some smart decisions in tough spots, throwing the ball away when necessary, scrambling for yardage when the opportunity presented itself and, most importantly, continuing to push the ball downfield even in the face of the rush.
Receiver Michael Jenkins, who benefited from Ponder’s aggressiveness to the tune of 111 yards and 2 TDs (his best day as a pro), made a point of praising the young QB’s resilience. “He kept shooting and that’s what you have to do in that position,” Jenkins said after the game. “He threw a couple picks, but he never wavered and never seemed down. He was always positive.”
Ponder’s willingness to keep taking deep shots was possibly the most refreshing thing about his performance, especially given his predecessor McNabb’s tendency to go with safe check-downs rather than risk throwing deep. Ponder’s gunslinger mentality was a big part of why the Vikings were able to stay in the game in the second half, and ultimately Ponder wasn’t hurt by the risk-taking – his two interceptions both came on short throws where he was flat-out schooled by the veteran Charles Woodson. Ponder will surely learn from the experience.
Not that Ponder’s performance was without things to criticize. He did have one stretch of 8 straight incompletions, including the two picks. He was aided by Bill Musgrave’s playcalling, which allowed him to roll out and only read half the field, but such an approach has its limitations as became glaringly obvious over the course of the game. But the great thing about Ponder is that he’s still young and has plenty of time to learn. As he picks up on the game’s nuances the interceptions and sacks will be reduced, Musgrave will feel more comfortable letting him throw from the pocket and the statistics will improve. Hopefully, with the stats will come more wins.
About That Defense
The Vikings knew going into Sunday’s game that they were going to have a tough test against the Packers and their high-flying pass attack. The key would be pressuring Aaron Rodgers…and in fact they did pressure him, sacking him 4 times and for a large portion of the second half making him look slightly unsure of himself. Unfortunately the defense was unable to focus consistently enough, and breakdowns followed. The worst came on the second play of the third quarter when Husain Abdullah got sucked in by a pump fake, leaving his deep safety position and allowing Greg Jennings to get wide open for a touchdown. Abdullah compounded his terrible day by later missing a chance at an open-field tackle on James Jones, allowing Jones to run for 27 yards to the Vikings’ 6 (the Packers eventually settled for a field goal).
It was a long day overall for the Vikings secondary, which took the field without its top 2 corners Antoine Winfield and Chris Cook, and without emerging safety Jamarca Sanford. The remaining guys were carved up like a Halloween pumpkin by Aaron Rodgers who finished with 335 yards, 3 TDs and no picks. It was also not a particularly good day for the Vikings’ linebackers, who failed to show up on the Packers’ final possession, when James Starks, who had been completely bottled up to that point, ran 6 straight times for 55 yards and 3 first downs to put it away. Had Chad Greenway or E.J. Henderson or somebody else made a key tackle on the sequence, the Vikings might have had a shot at a miracle last-second win.
No one expected the Vikings’ defense to shut down the Packers, but what you hope against that kind of team is that you’ll be able to make a couple of big plays to slow their momentum and give your offense a shot. Once again, it became obvious that the Vikings are sorely lacking in the kinds of defensive performers who can make such key plays. Jared Allen showed up as usual, sacking Aaron Rodgers twice and making a couple big tackles against the run, but outside of him, who on the Vikings D consistently steps up? Marcus Sherels and Everson Griffen did make a couple of nice plays but they’re not the sort of guys you can count on to do it week after week. The guys you would expect to do more – Kevin Williams, Greenway, E.J., maybe Cedric Griffin in spite of his physical problems – are too often getting beaten either by blockers or men they’re trying to cover. Things will get a little better when Winfield, Cook and Sanford return, but even at full strength this defense is short of game-changers. A lot of emphasis has been placed on the offensive struggles this year, but let’s not lose sight of how far this defense has slipped since 2009.