The mistakes made by the Vikings' two young quarterbacks, rookie Christian Ponder and second-year player Joe Webb, came down to mostly a matter of timing, according to head coach Leslie Frazier.
Ponder started his seventh game with the Minnesota Vikings, despite not practicing until Friday last week because of a hip pointer, but he threw three interceptions and fumbled the ball twice, losing one of those. Webb replaced Ponder in the third quarter, after the rookie threw his third interception of the game. While Webb led the Vikings back from a 31-14 third-quarter deficit to within a yard of winning the game, he, too, fumbled the ball on the last play of the game.
The trouble with Ponder started from his first snap of the game. He dropped to pass and was stripped of the ball by defensive end Cliff Avril, who got around right tackle Phil Loadholt. Frazier said Ponder wasn't too deep in the pocket, but he held onto the ball too long.
"He wasn't too deep. What has to happen, when that back foot hits, if that's not there, you have to get rid of the ball. You can't hold the ball, and he'll learn from that," Frazier said. "Those guys on the other side, they get paid, too, to rush the passer, so if you hold the ball longer than you should, that's what can result in those situations. You've got to get that ball out. You can't wait for the guy to get open. It's a little bit of timing. If he's not open, you've got to get rid of it, and he'll get that. But in that situation we've got to get it out of our hands."
That play would be just a precursor to Ponder's troubles on the day. On his next series, he threw the ball into triple coverage while targeting Devin Aromashodu. The result was the first of two Alphonso Smith interceptions, leading to another Lions touchdown and a 14-0 lead.
Later in the first half, Ponder targeted Greg Camarillo on an out route, and Smith located the ball as soon as Camarillo made his break. The Lions cornerback made the easy interception and returned it 30 yards for a touchdown and a 28-7 lead. After Ponder rolled to his right on the first possession of the second half and threw a weak pass across his body to the middle of the field that was intercepted by Eric Wright, Frazier had seen enough. Ponder was pulled from the game.
"The one that was returned for a touchdown, he threw it a little bit behind the receiver. You've got to get it more out in front," Frazier said. "The one coming out of the half, the scramble, just a bad decision throwing across your body. In our league, guys are going to recover. It's just one he has to learn from. You don't want to throw across your body over the middle of the field. It's too congested."
On the final interception, Ponder had a chance to hit Harvin running across the middle before he scrambled, but, like with the first pass, he held onto the ball too long. Because of Ponder's hip pointer, he wasn't able to break contain and scramble like he has often in the past two months.
The question now is whether Ponder is learning from his mistakes, as he said he needs to do. Since the Vikings' bye week, Ponder has completed 92 of 160 passes for 1,083 yards, eight touchdowns and nine interceptions for a 71.4 passer rating. The most alarming statistic in that time might be his interception percentage – 5.625.
The repeated mistakes are what would be concerning to the coaching staff.
"What you don't want to do is what you just said, make the same mistakes repeatedly. That begins to get a little worrisome," Frazier said. "He's doing some good things to offset some of the errors. We have to continue to accentuate the positives that he is doing and try to eliminate some of the negatives. I do think he is growing. I do think that yesterday was a part of the maturation process for him. We'll be better for it, he'll be better for it in time."
Some of struggles are to be expected from a rookie quarterback who didn't have an offseason with coaches to learn a new offense because of the NFL lockout. He has also been dealing with an evolving receiving corps – one that had Bernard Berrian in Ponder's first game played and Michael Jenkins in Ponder's first four starts.
After his third game with more interceptions than touchdowns, Ponder's 73.4 rating for the season is ranked 30th in the league, ahead of only Curtis Painter and Tim Tebow.
"It went back to turnovers. We just stopped ourselves. I stopped the offense," Ponder said.
"I've got to keep learning from mistakes and I can't force things that aren't there."
Despite Ponder's struggles, Frazier said he will continue to be the Vikings' starting quarterback Sunday against the New Orleans Saints as long as he is healthy, and he is expected to practice on Wednesday after suffering no injury setback with his hip.
While backup Joe Webb rushed for 109 yards on seven attempts, including a 65-yard touchdown run, he had only 84 yards passing on 23 attempts and also had the fumble to end the game after the Vikings had the ball on the 1-yard line with 9 seconds remaining and a chance to win it.
But, like Ponder had done previously, Webb didn't get the timing or execution of the play right. He pump-faked to Kyle Rudolph instead of throwing the ball, giving the Lions' six-man blitz time to get to him and cause the game-ending fumble.
"We were hoping we'd at least get another shot if it wasn't there immediately. And you know it didn't happen," Frazier said. "But that's something he'll learn from and get better at it, if we are ever in that position again."
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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