It would appear as though teams have figured out how to defeat the Minnesota Vikings this season – put pressure on quarterback Christian Ponder.
It's no coincidence that the Vikings were 4-1 in their first five games because Ponder wasn't harassed and wasn't getting "happy feet" in the pocket. In the last four games, Ponder has been under pressure and has had two games in which not only did he not throw for 250 yards, he barely threw for 50. In Week 7 against Arizona, Ponder completed just 8 of 17 passes for 58 yards with one touchdown, two interceptions and a passer rating a horrendous 35.5. It seemed like history repeated itself Sunday against Seattle. He completed 11 of 22 passes for just 63 yards with no touchdowns, one interception and a passer rating of just 37.3.
"We're good at throwing the ball. We've got good receivers, we've got good blocking up front. I've just got to do a better job to get the ball in their hands," Ponder said. "This team isn't one-dimensional. This offense isn't one-dimensional. We've shown that the past couple games, but we can throw the ball. We're going to figure it out and we're going to win in the air."
Despite Ponder's struggles, head coach Leslie Frazier isn't inclined to make a switch at quarterback.
"I think we've got to look at the tape from this ballgame and figure out what we need to do to help our passing game improve. We've shown we're not going to win a lot of games if we didn't improve our passing game so we need some balance," Frazier said. "We're doing a great job of running the football, but we need some balance. We've got to look at the tape as coaches to figure out what we need to do to create that balance.
"I don't necessarily think that Christian is the problem. We've got to look at what we're doing and what people are doing against us."
So now where is the problem coming? It's not just interceptions, but that has played a significant part in the problem. In his first four games, Ponder didn't throw any interceptions and was the last opening-day starter to throw a pick. In the last five games, he has thrown eight interceptions – at least one in each game. His passer rating has gone from above 100.0 in September to a new current low of 82.0.
But more telling has been how Ponder has responded to being pressured. In recent weeks his accuracy has been horrible – even on what should be the easiest pass to throw, a two-step drop to throw a bubble screen to Percy Harvin. In the last three games, he has whistled more than a half-dozen of those passes by Harvin. In the first month of the season, he was completing 70 percent of his passes. In his past four games, he has completed barely more than 50 percent of his throws.
How can the same player who looked so efficient against teams like San Francisco and Detroit – both playoff teams from a year ago – be so awful against teams like Arizona, Tampa Bay and Seattle? The answer may be simpler than it appears. He isn't responding well to pressure, especially when it results in sacks.
Ponder has been sacked 23 times and has never been sacked more than four times in any game. But, in the four games in which he has been sacked two times or less, the Vikings are 4-0. In the five games in which he has been sacked three or more times, the Vikings are 1-4.
"I want to take a look at the tape and just get a feel for what created some of the trouble (Sunday) in our passing game," Frazier said. "Usually when you run the ball as well as we did, it opens up things in the passing game and that didn't happen (in Seattle). We've got to take a look at it."
The fast start the Vikings got off to has been eliminated – they now trail the 7-1 Bears and 6-3 Packers – in the division, the first time they have been in third place in the division all season. If they lose to Detroit next Sunday, they will head into the bye in last place in the NFC North.
All the blame for the Vikings' struggles can't be put directly on the doorstep of Ponder. After all, he hasn't been responsible for opposing running backs to suddenly gash the Vikings defense. But he has done nothing to stop the bleeding and, when he is throwing incompletions, it puts a worn-down Vikings defense back on the field. When that happens too often, bad results tend to follow.
The Vikings publicly remain confident in Ponder. However, if he is to be the leader of the Vikings offense (or least hold up his end of the bargain), he has to be in the conversation as to why the Vikings win games, not why they lose them.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.