It was a night-and-day performance for the Vikings’ offense Sunday against the Bears. Night was the first half, when Christian Ponder managed to throw for only 40 yards on 3-of-8 passing. Day was the second half plus overtime when Matt Cassel lit up the Bears for 243 yards on 20-of-33 passing with a touchdown and a pick.
What made the difference for Cassel? I don’t think it’s very complicated. The Bears’ strategy all day was to blitz, the kind of approach you would expect against a running team with a suspect passing game. Ponder didn’t handle the blitz well, and generally speaking did not manage the Bears’ pass rush very successfully, getting sacked three times.
Cassel on the other hand totally gouged the Bears when they brought extra men. Per PFF, Cassel went 10-for-15 for 121 yards and a TD against the Bears blitz. That fact alone can account for the significant uptick in passing production in the second half. The Vikings didn’t need to tweak anything, it was all there for Cassel as long as he handled the pressure. He did handle the pressure and the production followed.
The stark contrast between Ponder’s half of football and Cassel’s offers a telling reminder of just how far behind Ponder is in his development as a quarterback. It’s his third year and he still struggles mightily in pre-snap reads and reading coverages, and just having a feel for what the defense is trying to do.
Cassel on the other hand shows true veteran command. If you blitz him, he will find the one-on-one match-ups. If you try to mess him up with different coverages, he will find the holes.
The Bears do not have a good defense right now. They are god-awful against the run and not particularly great against the pass. The Vikings have good enough talent on offense to be successful against this weak a defense.
In the first half the Vikes were only able to move the ball on the ground, because Ponder just looked lost. In the second half the Vikes exploded through the air, exposing the Bears’ secondary. The Bears did not suddenly become a bad defense in the second half and the Vikings didn’t suddenly become a good passing team. It was just a matter of plugging a guy in at quarterback who could make the proper reads and deliver the ball with confidence.
I don’t mean to turn this into another Christian Ponder bash-fest, and I don’t mean to suggest that Matt Cassel is a great quarterback. I’m simply pointing out facts that should be obvious. In a game against a weak defense, a good quarterback with satisfactory receivers and a good running game behind him should be able to produce. The only way the defense has a chance is if they can bring looks that confuse the quarterback and throw off the offensive rhythm.
The Bears threw off Christian Ponder, but didn’t throw off Matt Cassel. They tried to throw off Cassel, blitzing him fifteen times, but they just got torn up for their efforts.
It’s not a matter of Cassel being a great QB, it’s a matter of him being good enough to get it done against a bad defense that is trying to compensate for its weaknesses by being aggressive. Ponder should at least be at that level by now, but he’s not.
Cassel is not the answer for the future – no one is suggesting that – but he was the answer Sunday against the Bears. And if Leslie Frazier wants to win out and help make a case for himself staying in Minnesota as coach, Cassel will be the answer for the rest of the season. He may be a statue in the pocket – that accounts for all the pass batdowns he suffers – but he’s a statue who gets the ball out.