The last month has provided Minnesota Vikings rookie quarterback Christian Ponder with a lot of firsts. Monday night in Green Bay will provide his first "second."
Ponder got his first NFL action in relief of Donovan McNabb on Oct. 16 in Chicago. He got his first NFL start the following week against the Green Bay Packers. On Oct. 30, he got his first start on the road, and his first win, against the Carolina Panthers.
But following his first bye week, Ponder gets his initial opportunity to face the same NFL team for the second time. In a scheduling quirk, the Vikings and Packers are playing each other two times in three games, leaving their last meeting fresh in the minds of both teams – including Ponder and the Packers defense he faced. How much will that affect the Vikings' game plan?
"We don't worry about the opposition. Never have. Still don't," Vikings quarterbacks coach Craig Johnson said. "But I do think that this is going to be another hurdle going on the road against a very quality opponent who has already got a book on you. That book has yet to be written. It's going to be exciting and interesting for all the coaches to find out how it's going to be, because I think we're going to have a gauge about how other teams are going to start defending Christian, depending on how the Packers do it, because the Packers have seen him and they've seen what's been hurt by him."
The only other NFC North team that has faced Ponder is the Chicago Bears, and that was only for the fourth quarter in a blowout that obviously affected the way the Vikings offense and Bears defense approached that final period. But head coach Leslie Frazier said he saw enough of Ponder that final 15 minutes in Chicago to know he was ready to become a starter.
Johnson likes what he sees in Ponder, too, but the veteran quarterbacks coach of the NFL has cautioned both Ponder and reporters that there will be bumps in the road.
"There is going to be a lot more to learn. I guarantee it. He'll be the first one to tell you. The one thing he's really got going for him is there is no book on Christian Ponder. It's just two games," Johnson said. "This is the NFL and defenses adjust fast. That is the great part of it, but now teams have got him a little bit on tape. Now they're going to have some things (after) they start figuring out what he's doing. They'll adjust and then he's got to adjust. That's why it's the greatest spot in all of team sports. That's why it's going to be fun to watch how that whole process comes together."
So far, Ponder has shown improvement. Against the Packers in his first NFL start, he completed only 40.6 percent of his attempt, throwing two touchdowns and two interceptions, but he helped the offense convert a season-high 56 percent of the team's third downs. He continued to look good on third downs against Carolina, converting 50 percent of them, but improved his overall completion percentage to 64.2 percent, throwing one touchdown and avoiding an interception.
Johnson said Ponder's ability to covert on pressure-packed third downs is one of his impressive qualities.
"We had struggled as a team converting those third downs. He's done a really good job with that. Outside of that, really I'm not that surprised," Johnson said. "People have asked me, ‘Are you surprised at his play?' I'm not because I was seeing that in practice and I thought it would be a matter of time when he got in that he would play well. He's meeting my expectations, but we're going to continue to try to get him better."
Ponder has seemed especially bothered by his completion percentage against the Packers in their first outing. He has also called himself out for his two interceptions in that game, both by Charles Woodson. One, Ponder said, was a bad throw and the other was a bad decision.
Both of those interceptions came against man coverage, and Ponder might be able to take advantage of those coverages with his legs if he can get to the edge and have the Packers' back-end defenders with their backs to him. While Ponder has shown an impressive ability to scramble, he still look to pass first, which isn't always the case with rookie quarterbacks that can run.
"That is a real process for all guys that are athletic, and I put him right in that category. So many guys that are young, they come out and they're run-pass guys. At the first sign of trouble, they pull it down and they try to run for it and he's done a great job, I think, of trying to extend a play, trying to work the passing game and see what's open," Johnson said. "See what's there and if it's not then you bring it down and run. What young quarterbacks find out, what he's finding out, the more he (keeps looking to pass while scrambling) the bigger the running lanes will be because the defense has to go cover guys first and then react to him. A lot of times when they get real urgent about trying to run the ball, the defense doesn't have enough chance to get their drops so there's a lot more mud, as we call it. He's done a great job of going through his progressions, and if it's not there using his feet. That's why I think it's really helped him a lot."
There are many facets of Ponder's game that have yet to fully develop, but the test doesn't get much more difficult than the one in Green Bay. The defending Super Bowl champions. An undefeated team halfway through the season. On the road at historic and rowdy Lambeau Field. Facing a division rival for the second time in three games. And a defense that likes to mess with quarterbacks' presnap reads.
If Ponder can handle all that, the future is, indeed, bright for him.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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