An Impressive First Start, In Detail
In one game, Christian Ponder managed to spark the Vikings offense in a way that Donovan McNabb never really did through six games. Despite being less “accurate” from a completion percentage standpoint (Ponder was 13-32, McNabb is at 60% this season), Ponder helped Minnesota go 9-16 on third downs, hit a 72-yarder to Michael Jenkins, and threw two touchdown passes.
Third downs were maybe the biggest reason Minnesota played the defending champion Packers so well. Ponder was 7-13 on third downs with one interception; he was sacked on one third down and ran to convert another (the other third down conversion came on an Adrian Peterson run.). To compare, here’s the Vikings third down conversation rates with McNabb under center: 36% (SD), 45% (TB), 29% (DET), 36% (KC), 30% (ARZ), 40% (CHI), 56% (GB). The Vikings had more first downs (25) against Tampa Bay, and I think it’s fair to say that was the offense’s best day under McNabb—that is, the best day that didn’t involve three Peterson touchdowns (Arizona).
ESPN’s Kevin Seifert thought it was worth writing this regarding Ponder’s first throw: “He put too much air on a deep pass to wide-open receiver Michael Jenkins, allowing the Packers’ defense to catch Jenkins and prevent a touchdown on what was a 72-yard pass.”
Seifert goes beyond nitpicking here, especially when writing about a rookie making his first start. The ball, thrown on the run by a right-handed quarterback moving to his left, travelled about 45 yards in the air. I would make two points about the throw itself. a) If Ponder stops and sets up for this throw, one of two things could have happened: Jenkins would have been another ten yards downfield, which is a tough throw for any quarterback (55-60 yards or more); or Tramon Williams might have had enough time to catch up with Jenkins/the ball and make a play on the pass. NFL Network’s Brian Baldinger thought Ponder did the right thing by keeping the ball in play and making sure Jenkins had a chance to make a catch; I agree. b) Let’s keep in mind that the Packers completed almost the exact same pass on their fist possession of the third quarter. The only difference between the two plays was that Minnesota blew their coverage even worse than Green Bay did; Greg Jennings had to slow down for Rodgers’ pass, but there were no Vikings anywhere near him. I don’t see anybody criticizing Rodgers’ throw.
Ponder showed us immediately that he can throw on the run. He hit Jenkins long while moving to his left, then rolled right and hit Visanthe Shiancoe for a touchdown two plays later. On Minnesota’s second possession, Ponder rolled right on a 2nd and 6 and hit Devin Aromashodu for 13 yards and a first down. This would be a theme throughout the game. We’ve heard that McNabb’s throwing mechanics came into question earlier this year; to my amateur eyes, the one McNabb throw that always looked awkward was when he was on the move. This won’t be a problem for Ponder.
Ponder also demonstrated his cool/calm demeanor. On a 2nd and 7 in the first quarter, Jim Kleinsasser shifted forward from the fullback position while Jenkins was beginning to come in motion from left to right. Ponder coolly stood up, motioned for Jenkins to come to a stop, then, with the play clock down to three seconds, paused before taking the snap and handing the ball off to Peterson. This was a simple but important action: Ponder averted an illegal shift penalty (two offensive players cannot be going in motion at the snap of the ball and, if two players are in motion, they both must be fully stopped before the snap) seemingly without batting an eye—can’t you picture a young quarterback overreacting and calling a timeout in that situation? It probably feels over-stated, but I think that is a nice thing to see from a guy in his first start.
Another thing I found encouraging: the coaches did not seem afraid of Ponder. On Minnesota’s third possession, the Vikings lined up in shotgun from their own 5 yard line and threw a pass—not just any pass either: play action with a sprint to the right that had Ponder a couple yards deep in his own end zone! Brad Childress probably never did this with Jackson at the helm (I wish I had an archive of Vikings games on film; if I did, I assure you I would try to find Jackson in this situation). Childress certainly would not have done this unless it was a situation where he had to, say late in the game and trailing, when the offense needs to pass. I also like the fact that Ponder threw 32 passes on a day where the Vikings were running the ball very well—Bill Musgrave wasn’t trying to hide Ponder. A number of people of pointed this out already, and so will I: It as nice to see some deep throws. I thought a couple were reads/decisions Ponder made and a couple were plays called with only the deep ball in mind. (Since McNabb-Ponder comparisons are still useful at this point, I’ll just say that I thought the deep ball was probably the least of McNabb’s worries. He threw a couple nice ones that weren’t completed but were well thrown—Harvin caught one out of bounds against Kansas City that was McNabb’s best throw as a Viking, and it wasn’t clear why Harvin was running on the line.)
Unfortunately, between the Aromashodu catch and Ponder’s next completion, over nine minutes came off the clock. Still, despite Ponder’s lack of completetions, this nine-minute stretch, which started in the first quarter and spilled into the second, actually felt different from what we’ve seen from the Vikings this year. The offense ran 11 plays, with Ponder going 0-3, Peterson running five times for 26 yards, Harvin running twice for eight yards, and Ponder scrambling once for six yards. 11 plays, 37 yards, two first downs, and two punts (and a couple near interceptions). But when Ponder finally broke that spell with a six yard pass to Harvin, the score was still 7-7. Minnesota’s defense stopped Green Bay at midfield to force a punt, then recovered a muffed punt after the Vikings’ offense went three and out. Again, I don’t want to overstate, but this was a huge stretch for the Vikings; the Week 3 or 4 version of the Vikings might have buckled after that.
Including the the Harvin catch, Ponder went 5-8 and Minnesota was able go on a 10-6 run to end the first half. On the final possession of the half, Ponder converted two third downs and got help from a 29-yard Peterson run before the offense sputtered. Sputtering aside, I was seeing flashes of what I always sort of hoped a Peterson-led Vikings offense could look like: efficient running, a couple big plays sprinkled in, and smart third down passing. Gus Frerotte gave us a little of this, but Jackson and McNabb were unreliable as Peterson’s side-kick. Of course, in 2009, Brett Favre had the offense on an entirely different level, where I would say the passing game really drove the offense—that was beyond ideal, of course. Since Ponder is probably not even a future future-Hall of Famer, this ball control and third down efficiency approach looked pretty darn good to me.
The second half struggles were, in my opinion, a mix of bad play calling, rookie quarterbacking, and just plain circumstance. Ponder definitely made some big mistakes and I thought the Vikings strayed from what had been working in the first half, but, the fact that the Packers quickly took a two-score lead changed the Vikings’ approach.
One big problem the Vikings had when they were blowing second half leads was that they weren’t leaning on Peterson—throwing incomplete passes on first downs was not only stopping the clock, but it also left the offense wasting a down on every possession. The Vikings started four drives in the third quarter against Green Bay. The First: Incomplete pass, Peterson five-yard run, sack, punt. The Second: Peterson one-yard run, Ponder 10-yard run, Peterson five-yard run, incomplete pass, Peterson six-yard run, interception. The Third: Incomplete pass, Peterson 25-yard run, interception. The Fourth: Peterson 54-yard run, end of the third quarter. So, in the third quarter, Peterson ran six times for 96 yards. Ponder was 0-5 with two interceptions and took a sack. Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but it seemed like Musgrave was almost too confident in the passing game.
By the fourth quarter, Green Bay was up 33-17. Here’s where I thought Musgrave swung violently in the other direction: Peterson had some time to recover from his 54-yard run at the end of the third quarter, which is maybe why Musgrave ran Peterson again on first and second down to start the fourth. This left the Vikings with a make-able 3rd and 2 in field goal range, but I wonder if this set of downs would have been a good time to spell Peterson by either: running Toby Gerhart, who was fresher than fresh at that point (the bulk of his work on Sunday was on special teams) or run play action with a fake to Peterson. On third down, Ponder missed Jenkins deep and Minnesota settled for a field goal.
Minnesota’s next possession, which began on the Vikings’ seven yard line, was their best. Peterson and Ponder picked up four yards on the ground before Ponder hit Shiancoe on an out that was extended to a 22-yard gain. Next came a Ponder deep ball that was both ill-timed and poorly executed. Ponder was determined to throw it long, which made the play feel like a designed bomb, but Jenkins stopped short, giving two Packers a free run on the ball,which fell incomplete. Peterson ran for three on second down and Ponder scrambled for 12 to convert on third down after Lorenzo Booker crossed the formation and made a great blitz pickup—Aikman thought this was a designed run and, on second viewing, I would believe it. Ponder chucked the ball wide of Shiancoe on the next play, then had a seven yard run negated by a holding penalty. Facing 2nd and 20 in the fourth quarter down 13 points, the Vikings did the opposite of what we got used to seeing through six games: Peterson stormed for seven yards; Ponder hit Camarillo for 16 yards after scrambling out of the pocket; the refs actually gave the Vikings a call (a really bad one at that—they flagged Clay Matthews 15 yards for basically tackling Ponder); and Ponder finished the drive by throwing a rope to Jenkins on a skinny post pattern. Jenkins out-fought Woodson for the ball and scored. That’s the kind of drive the Vikings haven’t seen in almost a year.
The last possession was mostly ugly. On second down from the Vikings’ five yard line, Ponder threw a nice slant pattern that hit a diving Aromashodu’s hands but was dropped. It appeared that Woodson interfered on the play, but no flag was thrown. Ponder made a nice throw to Shaincoe to convert on third down, but had to leave the pocket and throw the ball away on the next play. The following second down was a run for no gain, but, on another third down and long, Ponder scrambled and found Camarillo for 19 yards, keeping the drive alive. The magic ran out there: a slow-developing bootleg play left Ponder ten yards behind the line of scrimmage with Packer defenders breathing down his neck, forcing him to heave a desperation bomb that fell incomplete; on second down, Camarillo ran a sloppy deep in route and gave Woodson an easy lane to jump (and nearly intercept) Ponder’s lazer-beam throw, a pass that Camarillo didn’t seem to expect; on third down, the Packers got good pressure up the middle and Ponder threw high on a seam route to Shiancoe. This left Frazier with little choice (I won’t get into that debate) but to punt and the Vikings didn’t touch the ball again.
Tim Tebow and Blaine Gabbert may have won their games this week, but neither was anywhere near as impressive as Christian Ponder, who gave Vikings fans more than enough reason to be optimistic about their first-round pick.