At first glance, Christian Ponder's passing numbers might seem pedestrian after the rookie quarterback's first start. He completed 13 of 32 passes for 219 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions and a 59.2 rating.
But beyond the finishing numbers, there was a lot to like in Ponder's performance. Of his 13 completions, 12 of them went for a first down or touchdown and he had five explosive passes, those covering more than 15 yards, including his game-opening 72-yard strike to Michael Jenkins.
"We're hoping that he will just continue to gain more confidence, get more comfortable with some of the things that we're doing and continue to grow as a quarterback," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. "If that does happen, we should continue to develop and come together as a football team as well. I thought he did some things (Sunday) really that rallied our team."
For sure, Ponder made some mistakes in the passing game, with two interceptions by future Hall of Fame cornerback Charles Woodson and several other passes that were off target. But beyond the explosiveness in the passing game, Ponder brought another element to the offense that the Packers seemed to guard against as the game went on.
Rookie quarterbacks often look to run too early, but Ponder seems to have a mature feel for when the pocket is breaking down, and when he does scramble it appears he is still looking to pass first, a desired quality. For now, however, he is proving to also be an effective runner with deceptive quickness.
Ponder rushed four times for 31 yards in the Vikings' 33-27 loss to the Packers. One of the rushes was a third-down scramble for a first down on their fourth-quarter touchdown drive and the other three all helped lead to first downs. By the fourth quarter, it appeared there were at least four occasions in which the Packers used a linebacker (two times it was A.J. Hawk and once Brad Jones) or nose tackle B.J. Raji as a spy on Ponder, shadowing his movements, and there may have been other times, according to Frazier.
"There were some things sometimes with one of their nose tackles and even one of their safeties and even with (Charles) Woodson sometimes just dropping an extra guy down to kind of keep an eye on him," Frazier said Monday after reviewing the film. "That was another strategic move on their part, but it really didn't hurt us in any way. He was still able to make plays in the pocket, out of the pocket and able to continue the things we were doing."
On the four occasions we noticed, two were incompletions, one was a 3-yard run for Ponder when Raji was assigned to him, and one was a 22-yard pass to Visanthe Shiancoe when linebacker Jones was busy keeping track of Ponder.
Frazier said he doesn't recall a team doing that with former starting QB Donovan McNabb, meaning other things could open up in the middle passing game if defenders are concentrating on limiting Ponder's scrambling ability.
"I thought Christian did a lot of good things during the course of the game," Frazier said. "He didn't seem to be intimidated or afraid of the situation."
Opening up the passing game might have also benefitted running back Adrian Peterson, who gained a season-high 175 yards rushing and said he noticed Ponder's passing presence having an effect on the way Green Bay approached the running game.
"There was a definite difference," Peterson said. "The line played tough and very physical today, which opened up the field. That's what you like to see are those guys showing respect; it was definitely very noticeable."
Quarterbacks will always be judged by their passing first. In that regard, Ponder brought an explosive element to the Vikings offense and helped with their third-down efficiency. With 40 percent considered a baseline, the Vikings converted 9 of 16 first downs (56 percent) and actually had more total net yards (435 to 421) than the high-flying efficiency of the Packers.
"The third-down numbers were impressive," Frazier said. "When you are able to complete I think 56 percent conversion rate against one of the top defenses in the National Football League the way our offense did, Christian had a major part in that third-down conversion rate. But also just seeing some of the throws that he made on the run, his pocket presence, his ability to be able to function in some tough situations, particularly in that fourth quarter after he had struggled a little in the third quarter, to bounce back and to play with the confidence that he played with and not to seem as if things are falling apart around me, he continued to play hard and play with confidence and not be shaken by some of the adversity that he faced in the third quarter," Frazier said. "That gives you a lot of hope as we go forward."
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Ponder's passing, scrambling affected Packers
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