By now everyone has beaten it into the ground that Christian Ponder failed to silence the doubters by his performance on Friday night versus the Buffalo Bills. He finished the game 5-12 for 53 yards with not a touchdown or a pick.
Following the game Ponder admitted to being confused by the different formations the Bills defense presented him. “They’re a very exotic defense, a very good defense,” Ponder said. “They had a lot of different looks. We’re still in pre-season mode, so we didn’t really do any scheming or anything against them. There’s a lot of things we’re going to be able to learn from the tape, and I think next week in San Francisco is going to be the big barometer of where we are as a team. I think the starters will play the first half and a little bit into the second half. So we’ll learn from this one and move on to the next one.” It’s notable of Ponder to admit that he did indeed struggle and he’s 100% correct in pointing out that this is a preseason game. What Buffalo oftentimes did was stacking 7 defenders close the line of scrimmage where none of them have their hands in the dirt. This is referred to the “psycho” formation and for a fine explanation read Chris Brown’s post over at smartfootball.com. Ponder struggled to recognize who would blitz and who would drop back into coverage. That furthermore had Ponder having a poor reaction to pressure, not being able to make any sort of anticipation throws, taking unnecessary steps in the pocket and delivering his passes with inadequate ball placement. When breaking down the depth of his targets he finished 3-6 on throws inside of 10 yards for 17 passing yards and on throws greater than 10 yards he was 2-4 for 36 yards both of which were to tight end Kyle Rudolph. Yes, he was playing without all-world running back Adrian Peterson allowing Buffalo to more creative with their pass rush knowing the Vikings wouldn’t bring their best rushing attack, but still Ponder’s passing numbers are not getting the job done.
Zooming ahead to the 4th quarter McLeod Bethel-Thompson (MBT), along with the rest of the 3rd team, was inserted into the game with the Vikings down 20-3. At this point Buffalo had pulled all of their defensive starters as well, however still were showing creative defensive formations with that supposedly being a common theme for them this year. The Vikings ended up losing 20-16 with MBT finishing 10-17 for 107 yards and a touchdown. Still it’s more than the standard box score stats that proved why MBT was clearly the Vikings best quarterback on Friday night. MBT he looked in command of the offense pre-snap, oftentimes altering the play call at the line of scrimmage and was not afraid to step up into the pocket delivering his passes with conviction. When looking more at the depth of MBT’s targets he was 6-7 on throws inside of 10 yards for 36 passing yards and on throws greater than 10 yards went 4-7 for 71 yards. The most impressive of those throws was with 7 minutes left in the 4th quarter having the Bills in a nickel formation with the Vikings facing a 3rd and 8. MBT was lined up in a shotgun formation where slot cornerback Kip Edwards blitzed the quarterback. MBT recognized the blitz to throw a pass 2.4 seconds after the ball was snapped that traveled 21 yards in the air hitting wide receiver Chris Summers in stride on a post route that resulted in a 1st down. That throw alone was better than anything Ponder has shown this preseason. MBT also faced the same number of Bills blitzes, 9, as Ponder did. Again, this was against a 3rd team Bills defense where a number of players may not make the team, but give MBT credit for getting the Vikings back into the game and not being afraid to test the second level of the defense with his arm.
It’s obviously too soon to suggest anything other than the Vikings must stick to their plan of giving Ponder the 3rd dress rehearsal against San Francisco on Sunday. The team has said time and time again that Ponder is the “unquestioned” starter to begin the 2013 season. But this is the same team that spent heavily on Greg Jennings, re-signed Jerome Simpson, drafted Cordarrelle Patterson and has spoken in glowing terms of Jarius Wright’s development at wide receiver. At the bare minimum though, a certain 3rd stringer’s play has given us a brief time to pause wondering if he’s capable of making the best of this offense balanced once that guy who wears 28 is turned loose.
Jon Merckle may be followed @thevikingpig