Christian Ponder's passing statistics, at least his passer rating, was the worst of three performances so far this season, but it did little to show how well Ponder played against one of the NFL's best defenses.
The San Francisco 49ers came into Sunday's game against the Vikings with the 11th-ranked defense, but Ponder found a way to minimize their effectiveness from the outset in a 24-13 Vikings win. He did it using different weapons at different stages of the game.
On the opening drive, a 16-play, 82-yard touchdown series, TE Kyle Rudolph was a primary weapon, catching four passes for 34 yards, including a 1-yard touchdown pass. However, the greatest weapon of all for Ponder might have been his own legs. On that touchdown toss, the Vikings thought they would get San Francisco's defensive end to crash inside on a play-action fake, but he stayed out wide and forced Ponder to stutter-step backwards and buy time on a naked bootleg.
"I kept backing up, backing up, trying to find (Rudolph) and then he just popped and I just put air under the ball and let him go get it," Ponder said.
Without his scrambling ability, the play likely would have resulted in a fourth-down sack and no immediate lead for the Vikings.
Ponder's mobility was even more prevalent on the Vikings' next touchdown drive. He started his third series with a 2-yard run and followed that up with another 9-yard scramble. While the 49ers were applying pressure, they weren't bringing down Ponder for losses.
"I know it creates issues any time a quarterback is mobile and he's able to scramble and make the plays on the run that he did," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. "It definitely puts some thoughts into coordinators' heads. Christian has been doing that in the three games that we've had this season, whipping around and making plays and today he was great at doing that. I'm sure it had to affect their D-line and their coaches just seeing him move around and make plays."
Center John Sullivan knows it had an effect on the 49ers' aggressive up front. He heard them talking about it.
"What we noticed is they were talking to each other, saying ‘Good job keeping him in the pocket,' so I think they were concerned with that coming into the game," Sullivan said. "I think it made their defensive line at times play more laterally. You see more games, teams to try to contain the quarterback, as opposed to just coming up the field."
While Ponder's two scrambles to start the series picked up a first down, his final run of the game produced the most dramatic result. When the 49ers brought pressure and he saw both of his receivers covered in man coverage, he stepped forward in the pocket and saw a massive running lane up the middle of the field. After eluding a couple of would-be tacklers, he dove for the end zone and gave the Vikings a 14-3 lead.
"Right when I took it down, I saw a big running lane and figured that if my white legs were fast enough, maybe I would get there," Ponder said. "I got there, so it was good."
Sullivan said Ponder's scrambling ability had a lasting effect on the 49ers.
"Obviously they're a bull-rushing group. You've got guys like (Ray) McDonald, Justin Smith, Aldon Smith with his long arms," Sullivan said. "At the same time, I think the threat of Christian running the ball keeps defenses a little bit honest."
Ponder finished the game completing 21 of 35 passes for 198 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions, no sacks and a 94.7 passer rating.
But even the passes Ponder didn't complete drew praise.
"I thought from a decision-making standpoint it may have been his best game. He did a lot of good things on the move," Frazier said. "But even in the pocket I know there was one occasion where they were barreling down on him and there were times in the past where he might have held onto the ball a little longer and taken a sack, but he ended up throwing the ball out of bounds.
"I said on the headset, ‘Man, he's growing up, he's getting it.' In certain situations you have to recognize when the play is dead. He's beginning to do that and that's going to make us a better football team going forward."
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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