The Minnesota Vikings are trying to figure out how to get off the ground.
They struggled through another poor performance by Christian Ponder in Sunday's loss at Seattle, wasting 182 yards and two touchdowns rushing by Adrian Peterson. As the toughest part of their schedule comes into view, the Vikings are searching for solutions to their sputtering passing attack.
"We've seen what the passing game can do in the early season. We just have to get back to that. We're good at throwing the ball. We've got good receivers. We have good blocking up front," Ponder said after the 30-20 defeat. "I just have to keep doing a better job of getting the ball in their hands. This team isn't one-dimensional. This offense isn't one-dimensional."
Coach Leslie Frazier said Monday he hasn't thought about pulling Ponder from a game or even a series, barring injury. The second-year quarterback, who has thrown for 23 touchdowns and 21 interceptions in 19 career starts, has been bothered by a minor injury to his right knee. He got up slowly a couple of times on Sunday, enough to prompt the coaches to tell backup Joe Webb to be ready.
Frazier said Ponder hasn't complained about the knee and doesn't believe it's a problem. The coach did, however, acknowledge Ponder's footwork as a factor in his incompletion to Percy Harvin on a simple bubble screen throw in the second quarter against the Seahawks.
"He's completed that with high accuracy throughout the season. For whatever reason, that ball sailed on him. Got to get his feet set. Got to make that throw," Frazier said.
Harvin, who badly sprained his left ankle and might not be able to play this Sunday against Detroit, was frustrated enough to scream at Frazier on the sideline after that miss. The Vikings were at the Seattle 11 in a tied game at the time, and Ponder was sacked on the next play to force them to settle for a field goal.
"It was just a frustrating point in the heat of the battle," Harvin said, lamenting the missed opportunity for a touchdown. "But it was nothing more than that."
Harvin has been one of the NFL's most productive players this season, but when defenses have ganged up to try to take him away the Vikings have infrequently been able to produce an effective response.
"It's very frustrating. I would be lying if I told you different. We've got a lot of work to do. We're all still confident we can turn this thing around," Harvin said.
Whether it's calling the right plays at the right times, the receivers getting open or Ponder having enough confidence and accuracy to deliver a completion in those situations, the Vikings have not shown they can consistently use the deep ball to move up and down the field.
When they were winning, their defense was good enough that didn't matter. Lately, that group has been shaky, too. Peterson is often capable of covering up that deficiency all by himself, but he couldn't make that happen on Sunday. He took only five handoffs after halftime, but the Vikings ran only 19 plays.
The bubble screens and other creative ways offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave has used to put the ball in the multi-talented Harvin's hands haven't been working as much, either. Harvin said he's hearing the defense call out the bubble screen before the snap a lot more than in the past. He said other teams have also sent safeties and linebackers out to cover the play, making the blocks for Harvin's teammates more difficult than if they were trying to get in the way of a cornerback.
"We'll have to dial some different things up, see if we can get something else going," Harvin said.
In Seattle, Ponder produced his third game of 100 yards passing or less. That's one-third of the season. The Vikings got away with it beating Detroit and Arizona, but there has to be more balance for them to be able to get back on track. Frazier said in his conversations with Ponder he's come away with the same belief in Ponder's confidence that he had earlier in the year when the Vikings started 4-1. But Ponder was sacked four more times by the Seahawks, and his body language in the pocket and the accuracy of his throws have suggested he's lost a little of his moxie.
"He knows there are some things that he needs to improve on, but there are also some things throughout our passing game that we have to get corrected in order to help him be successful," Frazier said. "That will be the challenge for all of us."